By MICHAEL BLOOD, LISA MASCARO and ELLEN KNICKMEYER
SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (AP) — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy welcomed Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen for a historic meeting on U.S. soil Wednesday, in a politically sensitive session underscoring U.S. lawmakers’ growing support for her self-ruled island as tensions rise with rival China.
McCarthy and Tsai briefly shook hands when her SUV pulled up to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library under the Southern California sun. Giant wooden doors closed behind them as they walked inside for what were to be several hours of meetings with Democratic and Republican members of Congress, cameras transmitting the show of high-level partnership to China and the world.
The two made no comment as small crowds of demonstrators waved signs, both for Taiwan and for China’s claim to the island.
For Tsai, this was the most sensitive stop on a weeklong journey meant to shore up alliances with the U.S. and Central America. China views any interaction between U.S. and Taiwanese officials as a challenge to its claim to the island as its territory, and has reacted to past meetings with shows of force and by pulling back on dialogue with the United States.
The Chinese responded to a visit by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan last August with its largest live-fire drills in decades, including firing a missile over the island.
Angry Chinese officials have pledged a sharp but unspecified response to the meeting with McCarthy. The Biden administration has said there is nothing new or provocative about this visit by Tsai, which is the latest of a half-dozen.
“There’s no reason for the Chinese to overreact in any way,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday. “We’ll watch this as closely as we can.”
Chinese vessels started a joint patrol and inspection operation in the central and northern waters of the Taiwan Strait, state media announced Wednesday morning. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said Wednesday evening it had also tracked the Chinese Army’s Shandong aircraft carrier passing through the Bashi Strait, to Taiwan’s southeast.
China’s “deliberate action has jeopardized regional stability and caused tension in Taiwan Strait,” Taiwan’s defense ministry said. “However, external pressures will not hinder our determination to move toward the world & defend our country.”
The Taiwan president’s visit to America comes as China, the U.S. and its allies are strengthening their military positions and readiness for any confrontation between the two sides, with Taiwan and its claim to sovereignty a main flashpoint. Confrontation between the U.S. and China, a rising power increasingly seeking to assert its influence abroad under President Xi Jinping, surged with Pelosi’s visit and again this winter with the cross-U.S. journey of what the U.S. says was a Chinese spy balloon.
The United States broke off official ties with Taiwan in 1979 while formally establishing diplomatic relations with the Beijing government. While the U.S. acknowledges the “one-China” policy in which Beijing lays claim to Taiwan, it does not endorse China’s claim to the island and remains Taiwan’s key provider of military and defense assistance.
Wednesday’s session is the first known meeting between a House speaker and a Taiwanese president on American territory since the U.S. broke off formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Taiwan and China split in 1949 after a civil war and have no official relations, although they are linked by billions of dollars in trade and investment. China regularly flies fighter planes and bombers near Taiwan to emphasize its stance that the island is obliged to eventually unite with the mainland, by force if necessary.
When President Jimmy Carter formally established diplomatic relations with the Beijing government. Congress responded by writing into law that the U.S. would nonetheless retain close ties with Taiwan.
For their part, Taiwanese officials in the United States – and Taiwanese presidents on a succession of visits—aim for a delicate balance of maintaining warm relations with their powerful American allies, without overstepping their in-between status in the U.S , or unnecessarily provoking China.
To that end, no Taiwanese flag flies over the former Taiwan Embassy in Washington.
Taiwanese presidents call their stops in the U.S. “transits” rather than visits. They avoid Washington on their itineraries as well as any public meetings between their top-level officials and those of the U.S. on American U.S. soil.
McCarthy, who seldom makes forays into foreign policy, is trying to steer Republicans – and many Democrats – into taking a tougher approach to China.
Joining him for the bipartisan meeting was the third-ranking House Democrat, Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, and more than a dozen other lawmakers. The group included the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on China, along with the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee that handles tax policy important to Taiwan, and lawmakers who are military veterans and members of the House Armed Services Committee, among others.
The venue, at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley about 50 miles outside of Los Angeles and near McCarthy’s own home district, evokes an era when the Republican Party played a more substantial role on global matters. In contrast, McCarthy’s GOP includes a strong non-interventionist wing that is more skeptical of involving the U.S. overseas.