McCarthy’s Meeting with Taiwan’s President Puts U.S. on Alert

REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
U.S. President Joe Biden talks with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as they depart following the annual Friends of Ireland luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., March 17, 2023.

The Biden administration is preparing for China to lash out in response to next week’s highly anticipated meeting in California between Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R), who would become the highest-ranking U.S. official to meet with a Taiwanese leader on American soil.

China’s response could be harsh objections or sanctions on McCarthy and other U.S. officials. It might even be a display of military force that matches or exceeds the dramatic display when missiles were fired over Taiwan following then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in August.

The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Beijing probably will view Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy (R-Calif.) as less provocative than her meeting in Taipei with Pelosi (D-Calif.) and will refrain from extreme aggression, according to a senior administration official who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity. But the reality is that administration officials don’t know how Beijing will react to Tsai’s travel through the United States. That uncertainty, experts say, underscores the situation’s volatility.

“The Chinese will make their own decisions at the end of the day,” the senior official said.

In advance of McCarthy’s meeting with Tsai, U.S. military personnel in the Indo-Pacific region are working under a heightened state of vigilance, officials said, monitoring intercepts and other intelligence, and providing that information to senior leaders.

Tsai is transiting through the United States on her way to meetings in Central America. She arrived Wednesday in New York, where she was scheduled to speak at a private event Thursday evening hosted by the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. On April 5, while on her way back to Taiwan, she will stop in California, where she is scheduled to meet McCarthy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

The White House and State Department have urged Beijing to view next week’s meeting as they do: A major step down from McCarthy’s original plan to visit Taipei that poses no threat to China and does not amount to any change in U.S. policy.

“This transit is consistent with our long unofficial relationship with Taiwan, and it is consistent with the United States one-China policy,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday, referring to Washington’s long-held position that neither challenges nor endorses Beijing’s claims over the island. China holds that Taiwan is part of its territory, and Beijing has threatened to retake it by force if necessary.

“There is no reason for [China] to react harshly or overreact in any way,” Kirby added. “This is a common occurrence. President Tsai Ing-wen has done it six times before. Other presidents of Taiwan have transited the United States. Nothing unusual about this.”

But what is unusual is that the McCarthy-Tsai meeting will occur on U.S. soil against the backdrop of a hotly contested presidential election in Taipei and the heightened tension between Beijing and Washington less than a year after Pelosi traveled to Taiwan against the wishes of some senior Biden administration officials.

In response to that visit, China launched a retaliatory show of military force: firing of ballistic missiles over Taiwan, deploying warships into the Taiwan Strait and conducting a simulated blockade of the island. The fact that no House speaker – a position second in line to the presidency – has ever met with a Taiwanese president in the United States has angered Chinese officials.

“We firmly oppose this and will take resolute countermeasures,” Zhu Fenglian, a Chinese government spokesperson, told reporters Wednesday.

A meeting between McCarthy and Tsai “seriously violates the one-China principle [and] undermines China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Zhu, who demanded that no U.S. officials meet Tsai and that the United States “refrain from arranging Tsai Ing-wen’s transit visits.”

The chargé d’affaires for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Xu Xueyuan, was more pointed, calling Tsai’s transit “merely a disguise for her true intention of seeking breakthrough and advocating ‘Taiwan independence.’ ” It didn’t make a difference if it was Taiwan leaders “coming to the United States or the U.S. leaders visiting Taiwan,” she said. “It could lead to another serious confrontation in the China-U.S. relationship.”

McCarthy had voiced a desire to travel to Taipei, but his office was advised that such a visit could be exploited for political purposes in the run-up to January’s presidential election in Taiwan. The opposition Nationalist Party, his aides were told, could use a trip to portray Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party’s cross-strait policy as dangerous, unnecessarily provocative and raising the risk of war with China.

McCarthy has invited a delegation of lawmakers to accompany him next week, including members of the House’s newly formed China select committee. But some Democrats on the committee do not plan to attend the event out of the concern that it is viewed as a “chest-thumping exercise” against Beijing, said officials familiar with the matter. Other aides to lawmakers said their boss was unavailable to attend the event in California.

McCarthy’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The United States’ “one-China policy” acknowledges that the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government of China. Washington maintains that the status of Taiwan should be settled peacefully between Beijing and Taipei, without the United States taking a position. Still, under the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States has provided Taiwan with billions of dollars of military equipment over the years to help it bolster its defenses.

Xi Jinping, who secured an unprecedented third term as China’s president and consolidated power in the government, has accused the United States of leading a campaign to contain, encircle and suppress China.

These are dangerous times, said Dennis Wilder, who held top Asia positions in the George W. Bush White House and in the CIA under President Barack Obama. “We are at the lowest point since the Tiananmen crisis of 1989,” he said, referring to Beijing’s brutal crackdown on student protesters that led to the cancellation of U.S. arms sales to China. Today, China’s military is more powerful than it was even a decade ago, competing with the United States for supremacy in the Indo-Pacific region. So it’s no wonder, he said, that the administration is on tenterhooks.

“Partly, they just don’t know how China would respond,” Wilder said. “But there’s also kind of a fear that there could be a response. That’s the thing – it’s a new day with Xi Jinping. And therefore, the response from the Chinese side is unpredictable.”

In a sign of the Biden administration’s concern about China’s reaction, national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Friday held a call with Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, to reinforce the idea that the trip was routine and should not provoke an overreaction – messages that were repeated in two calls with U.S. media in the lead-up to Tsai’s trip.

Sullivan also reiterated President Biden’s desire to have a phone call with Xi to reestablish engagement following the November meeting between the two leaders in Bali. The call with Wang has not altered Beijing’s stance or led it to moderate its statements about Tsai’s trip.

The last time U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Operations Center, or JIOC, operated under heightened vigilance was during Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, the command’s spokesman, Navy Capt. Kyle Raines said. That meant ensuring that personnel on the watch floor paid particular attention to events around Taiwan – tracking indications of hostile activity and accommodating an increased demand for information that could come from commanders in the field, embassies in the region and from the Pentagon, he said.

Once Indo-Pacific Command officials learned that Tsai might travel to the United States, they put in place a similar plan. “We’re always prepared,” he said. “We’ll adjust as necessary.”

U.S. officials say Tsai’s transit through the United States follows similar visits by her and her predecessors. Tsai previous visits have included meetings with members of Congress.

In 1995, when Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui traveled to New York to speak at his alma mater, Cornell University, China carried out months of military drills, including conducting missile tests in the direction of Taiwan.

On her current trip, in keeping with past protocol, Tsai will be met by Laura Rosenberger, a former official on the National Security Council who is now the chair of the American Institute in Taiwan, the U.S. entity that handles relations with the island.

U.S. officials say they do not support Taiwan’s independence, but Beijing views the deepening contact between the United States and Taiwanese officials as a precursor to such moves. When Pelosi visited Taipei last year, it was the highest-level trip since House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s visit in 1997.

Tsai’s transit comes as U.S. officials raise varying degrees of alarm about China’s determination to be able to seize control of Taiwan, by force if necessary, by 2027.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday, said that he does not see an attack on the island as imminent or inevitable, but that the Pentagon is working to get Taiwan weapons such as coastal-defense and anti-armor missiles and training for them to deter an invasion.

“We are making progress, but we’ll move at a faster pace,” Austin said. “There’s not a week that goes by that I am not talking to commanders and staff on the problem set . . . and the challenges that we face with China.”

The McCarthy meeting could also set back U.S.-China relations in other ways.

Following the Pelosi visit, China restricted military-to-military communications with the United States and suspended climate talks. Some discussions between China’s top climate officials and U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry have resumed, but they have yet to produce results. U.S. officials remain concerned about the lack of contact between the two countries’ respective militaries – especially given the prospect of an accident in the air or at sea that results in a military escalation.

Before boarding her plane, Tsai told reporters: “I want to tell the whole world democratic Taiwan will resolutely safeguard the values of freedom and democracy and will continue to be a force for good in the world.

“External pressure will not obstruct our resolution to engage with the world,” she said.