U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy met Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in California on Wednesday, becoming the most senior U.S. figure to meet a Taiwanese leader on U.S. soil since 1979 despite threats of retaliation from China, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as its own.
Tsai thanked the U.S. Congress for standing by Taiwan when democracy was under threat and said she had cited former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in telling McCarthy and other Republican and Democratic lawmakers of her belief that “to preserve peace, we must be strong.”
“I would like to add that we are stronger when we are together,” she said standing side-by-side with McCarthy after their meeting at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
They stood in an atrium in front of a blue and white Boeing aircraft that Reagan flew on as president in the 1980s.
“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,” said McCarthy, a Republican who through his House position is number three in the U.S. leadership hierarchy.
“We will honor our obligations and reiterate our commitment to our shared values behind which all Americans are united.”
China staged war games around Taiwan last August following then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei and Taiwan’s defense ministry said a Chinese aircraft carrier group was in the waters off the island’s southeast coast ahead of the meeting between Tsai and McCarthy.
At a news conference in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there was nothing new in Tsai’s transits and such stops were “private” and “unofficial.”
“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,” he said.
Supporters waving Taiwan flags and pro-Taiwan and Hong Kong banners chanted “Jiayou Taiwan” – the equivalent of “Go Taiwan” – in the Reagan Library parking lot ahead of Tsai and McCarthy’s arrival for the highest-level meeting for a Taiwanese president on U.S. soil since Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.
A small plane flew over the library towing a pro-Beijing banner saying “One China! Taiwan is part of China!”
The meeting is sure to draw a strong reaction from Beijing, which considers Taiwan part of its territory and has vowed to bring it under its control, by force if necessary.
China repeatedly warned against the meeting between McCarthy and Tsai, who is on her first U.S. stopover since 2019, although some analysts expect its reaction to be more moderate than that to Pelosi’s Taipei visit.
A meeting in California is seen as a potentially less provocative alternative to McCarthy visiting Taiwan, something he has said he hopes to do.
Taiwan’s defense ministry said the Chinese carrier group was headed for training in the Western Pacific and that Taiwanese naval and air forces and land-based radar systems closely monitored them.
It said the ships, led by the carrier Shandong, passed through the Bashi Channel separating Taiwan from the Philippines and then into waters to Taiwan’s southeast.
China has sailed its carriers near Taiwan before and at similarly sensitive times. It has yet to comment on the carrier group, whose appearance also coincided with the arrival in Beijing of French President Emmanuel Macron.
In March last year, the Shandong sailed through the Taiwan Strait hours before the Chinese and U.S. presidents were due to talk.
Tsai transited through New York last week en route to Central America to visit two of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic partners, Guatemala and Belize.
While Washington has called Tsai’s stopovers a routine part of its unofficial relationship with Taiwan, it is bound by law to provide the island with the means to defend itself and has stepped up interactions with Taipei in recent years as Beijing’s pressure on the island has increased.
Xu Xueyuan, charge d’affaires at China’s Washington embassy, said last week McCarthy meeting Tsai “could lead to another serious confrontation in the China-U.S. relationship.” On Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry said it would “closely monitor” the meeting and “resolutely defend” Chinese sovereignty.
Since Pelosi’s visit, U.S.-Chinese relations have deteriorated to what some say is their worst level since 1979.
February saw the dramatic shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon that drifted over U.S. territory, and fears have only grown that Beijing may eventually be emboldened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to move militarily against Taiwan.