Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen warned direly that “democracy is under threat” when she met US Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California on Wednesday, a highly anticipated event that marked a show of popular solidarity against China’s threats.
Tsai met with McCarthy and a bipartisan group of US lawmakers at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California’s Simi Valley. The landmark meeting is the second time Tsai has met an American lawyer of that order in a year, following a visit from then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August. Tsai is also the first Taiwanese president to meet with the speaker of the US House on American soil.
“It’s no secret that today we hold the peace and democracy we’ve worked to build against unprecedented challenges,” Tsai said in notes according to McCarthy. “Once again we find ourselves in a world where democracy is endangered and the urgent need to keep the beacon of freedom shining.”
The meeting gave both Tsai and McCarthy a significant platform to highlight US-Taiwan relations.
“The friendship between Taiwan and America is very important to the free world. “It is critical to maintain economic independence, regional peace and stability,” McCarthy said.
“We are stronger when we are together,” Tsai said. “In our effort to protect our lives, Taiwan welcomes the United States to be on our side.”
China sent a number of naval vessels to the coast of Taiwan, ahead of the meeting between Tsai and McCarthy. On Wednesday night local time, Beijing sent a “large station and rescue ship” to the coast of central and northern Taiwan for a three-day “joint patrol and inspection” operation, China’s Fujian Maritime Safety Administration said in a statement.
In a news conference after the meeting with the President of Taiwan, McCarthy indicated that China does not dictate who speaks or where he goes, but said “it is not our intention to escalate tensions with Beijing.”
Asked what his message was to China amid threats of retaliation over the meeting, McCarthy said: “I am the speaker of the house. China is not going to tell me where I can go or who I can talk to.” He also said: There is no need for revenge.
McCarthy said, “No, it’s not our intention to escalate,” when asked if he was concerned the meeting would escalate tensions with Beijing.
The Defense Department has not sent additional assets to the Indo-Pacific region in preparation for an aggressive response from China, a Pentagon spokesman told reporters Wednesday.
At Pelosi’s urging last summer, Beijing launched large-scale military drills around the democratic, self-governing island and suspended some lines of communication with Washington – raising concerns over the response to Tsai’s sit-down with McCarthy on Wednesday, although that meeting took place in the US.
Tsai’s mission in California is scheduled to end after official visits to Taiwan’s diplomatic allies Guatemala and Belize – part of a 10-day trip to Taipei to oversee overseas relations amid Beijing’s escalation.
China’s Consulate General in Los Angeles condemned the anticipated meeting with McCarthy as “not conducive to regional peace, security and stability”, warning that it would undermine the “political foundation” of China-US relations.
“We will closely follow the development of the security situation and will constantly maintain national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the consul said on Monday – one of many condemnations from Chinese officials in recent weeks as reports of the meeting emerged.
The Communist Party of China claims a self-governing democracy as its own, although it has never administered it, and has vowed to take the island by force if necessary.
Tsai struck a defiant tone when she set out on her international tour late last month, telling reporters that “foreign pressure” not to stop Taiwan from connection with the world and like-minded democracies.
On Tuesday, the island’s foreign ministry called the repeated Chinese criticisms “irrelevant and unreasonable.”
“Taiwan will not go down, and friends in the US who support Taiwan and Taiwan-US relations may or may not go down. “Democratic partners will only become more united and have more frequent exchanges,” he said.
A source close to McCarthy told CNN the meeting is an important moment for the Speaker, who sees creating an elected policy on China as one of his top priorities and the US relationship with China as a central issue of our time.
Wednesday’s meeting included Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, who is a member of the Democratic leadership and other congressional lawyers.
Tsai’s stops in the US, which include a stopover in New York last week, also come amid major US-China tensions.
The two powers are trying to stabilize their relationship amid friction over technical security issues related to Chinese surveillance of suspected drones in the US.
House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries issued a statement on Wednesday saying he met with Tsai last week during her transit to New York City.
“We had a very fruitful conversation about mutual security and economic interests between America and Taiwan. We also discussed the common role of democracy and freedom,” Lassus said in a statement.
Tsai also met with three US senators last week in New York. Joni Ernst and Dan Sullivan and Republican Sen. Mark Kelly all met with Tsai, according to sources familiar with the meeting. The Wall Street Journal was the first to report these meetings.
Last week, Beijing threatened the top US government that it could lead to Tsai’s presence in American states “Severe” training in a relationship.
“Beijing must feel that it needs to escalate because this is another US speaking meeting with Tsai less than a year ago. China is probably trying to prevent the United States from normalizing such meetings and make sure that its actions are strong enough and annoying that both the United States and Taiwan understand how China has reacted to such actions,” said Bonny Lin, director of China Power. Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Other analysts pointed out, however, that factors such as the location of the meeting in the US and its timing – as China seeks to renew its post-pandemic diplomacy and months before a presidential election in Taiwan, which will tone its relationship with Beijing – could see China receive a milder response compared to last year.
The White House declined to say in advance whether it would support a meeting between McCarthy and the president of Taiwan.
The US maintains a private relationship with Taiwan and Tsai is not in transit to the country, so the official visit is to keep Washington engaged with the long-standing “One China” policy.
Under the plan, the U.S. state of China recognizes that Taiwan is part of China, but has never officially recognized Beijing’s 23 million-year-old claim. It is also required by law to provide the people of the island with the means to defend themselves.
Congress has remained a key pillar of that private relationship – with delegations of advocates visiting the island and passing laws to increase support or coordination in recent years in the face of Beijing’s growing military, economic and diplomatic interests on the island.
This story and headline have been updated to reflect additional developments.