US Speaker McCarthy meets Taiwan’s Tsai despite China pressure

China has denounced the meeting with Taiwan’s president as a provocation, in violation of its ‘One China’ policy.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen stands next to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, as people raise cameras and phones to photograph the visit
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen (left) meets with Republican leader Kevin McCarthy in Simi Valley, California, the US [David Swanson/Reuters]

United States House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has met Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen in his home state of California, a historic visit that has already sparked condemnation from China, which claims the self-ruled democracy as its own.

The two leaders sat down together at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, approximately 55 kilometres (34 miles) from Los Angeles.

The closed-door meeting makes McCarthy the highest-ranking official to meet a Taiwanese president on US soil since 1979, the year Washington established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

McCarthy called Tsai “a great friend to America” and added: “I am optimistic we will continue to find ways for the people of America and Taiwan to work together to promote economic freedom, democracy, peace and stability.”

Tsai thanked McCarthy for his hospitality, calling it warm like the California sunshine, and also thanked the rest of the congressional delegation, saying: “I am so pleased.”

An airplane pulls a banner that reads "One China! Taiwan is part of China."
A plane flies above Simi Valley, California, pulling a banner that reads, ‘One China! Taiwan is part of China!’ in protest of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit [David Swanson/Reuters]

Beijing had already criticised Tsai’s stopovers in the US as part of a visit to diplomatic allies Guatemala and Belize and swiftly condemned the the meeting between McCarthy and Tsai who it frames as a “separatist” bent on securing Taiwan independence.

“In response to the egregiously wrong action taken by the United States and Taiwan, China will take strong and resolute measures to defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the foreign ministry said in a statement released on Thursday in Beijing. The defence ministry said that China’s army would be on “high alert”.

‘Stronger together’

A bipartisan group of politicians were present at the meeting, according to a statement from McCarthy’s office in the lead-up to the visit. A small crowd also gathered outside the library, some pro-Taiwan and some pro-China.

In a press conference later in the afternoon, McCarthy reaffirmed his support for continuing dialogue with Taiwan.

“The friendship between the people of Taiwan and America is a matter of profound importance to the free world, and it is critical to maintain economic freedom, peace and regional stability,” he said.

Tsai spoke after McCarthy, thanking him and other US congressional leaders for meeting with her.

“Their presence and unwavering support reassure the people of Taiwan that we are not isolated and we are not alone,” Tsai said, later adding: “We are stronger when we are together.”

Acknowledging the meeting’s setting in the Reagan Presidential Library, she quoted the former Republican president as saying that freedom needed to be actively defended.

“It is no secret that today the peace that we have maintained and the democracy that we have worked hard to build are facing unprecedented challenges,” Tsai said. “We once again find ourselves in a world where democracy is under threat. And the urgency of keeping the beacon of freedom shining cannot be understated.”


US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called Tsai’s transit through the US “normal”, noting that she has made six similar stopovers in recent years.

“Beijing should not use the transit as an excuse to take any actions to ratchet up tensions, to further push it changing the status quo,” Blinken said on Wednesday during a news conference in Brussels.

A spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Zhu Fenglian, had previously warned that Beijing will “resolutely fight back“, should McCarthy and Tsai meet.

In a press conference on Wednesday, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre emphasised that Tsai’s transit was part of “a long tradition” of Taiwan’s leaders passing through the US.

But she reiterated Blinken’s message that the stopover should not be a “pretext to overreact”.

“Our channels of communications are open,” Jean-Pierre said. “And we have had a consistent message that has urged restraint. And in recent days, we have conveyed directly to the Chinese at high levels that escalation is uncalled for. And so we’ll continue to keep those channels of conversations open.”

People carry American and Taiwan flags along with a large poster of Tsai Ing-wen's face
Supporters gather outside a Los Angeles hotel where Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen is set to arrive [Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP Photo]

The meeting comes at the tail end of a trip Tsai made to Central America, to shore up support in Belize and Guatemala, two of Taiwan’s 13 remaining diplomatic allies.

But her travels took her through New York late last month. Her “transit” through California on Wednesday is part of her return journey to Taiwan.

The unofficial US stops, however, have triggered a strong response from China, which considers Taiwan an inalienable part of its territory and therefore opposes any state-to-state relations with the island.

On Monday, China’s consulate in Los Angeles reiterated that the meeting with McCarthy would destabilise “the political foundations of China-US relations”, as well hurting “the national feelings of 1.4 billion Chinese people”.

The US does not maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but follows an unofficial policy of “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan and questions of its sovereignty.

And while Washington “acknowledges” Beijing’s “One China” policy, it rejects any use of force to settle the dispute over Taiwan’s independence. It is also the island’s most important international supporter and military backer.

For his part, McCarthy, a Republican, has been outspoken in his opposition to China’s leadership. In December, he collaborated on a Fox News editorial that stated “the greatest threat to the United States is the Chinese Communist Party”.

He has been a strong advocate for “aiding Taiwan in its self-defence” against China’s “aggression”, even proposing a visit to Taiwan after being elected speaker of the House of Representatives.

That position makes him the third-highest-ranking politician in the US government.

On Wednesday, in response to reporters’ questions, McCarthy revisited the prospect of visiting Taiwan, saying: “I don’t have any current plans, but that doesn’t mean I will not go.”

China, however, has repeatedly warned against any meetings between US and Taiwan leadership.

When former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a trip to the island last August, meeting with Tsai, China responded with war games around the island, including launching missiles over Taiwan.

The White House, however, has repeatedly sought to downplay the significance of Tsai’s stops in the US.

Her transit in New York last week included a speech at the Hudson Institute think-tank, as well as meetings with Democratic House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries and members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Jodi Ernst, Dan Sullivan and Mark Kelly.

In a news conference after Tsai’s departure on Wednesday, McCarthy outlined the “crucial ways” he hoped to further US “bonds” with Taiwan.

“Based on our conversations, it’s clear that several actions are necessary,” McCarthy said.

“First, we must continue the arm sales to Taiwan and make sure such sales reach Taiwan on a very timely basis. Second, we must strengthen our economic cooperation, particularly with trade and technology. Third, we must continue to promote our shared values on the world stage.”

McCarthy also warned that “tensions in this world are at their highest point since the end of the Cold War, as authoritarian leaders seek to use violence and fear to provoke needless conflict”.

But he dismissed concerns that Wednesday’s meeting would escalate tensions with China, saying there was no need for retaliation.

Tsai Ing-wen shakes hands with a politician, as Kevin McCarthy watches, standing next to her
Both Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (left) and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (right) made reference to former Republican President Ronald Reagan’s legacy during their meeting at the Reagan Presidential Library [David Swanson/Reuters]

California Representative Pete Aguilar, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, echoed McCarthy’s calls for peace and democracy. Aguilar added that the US welcomes competition, but not conflict, with China.

“It’s important for us to set aside partisanship and work together to promote our common interests and the interests of the free world,” he said.

Aguilar described the US relationship with Taiwan as “rooted in the pillars of stability, shared economic interests and democracy”.

“I told President Tsai that the House Democrats will never abandon this relationship and will work hand-in-glove with the Biden administration to affirm our commitment because we understand the unique role and vital role that Taiwan plays in the region,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies