SIMI VALLEY, Calif.— Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday became the most senior elected official to meet with a Taiwanese president on U.S. soil since Washington established diplomatic relations with Beijing, at a meeting orchestrated to signal solidarity with the island amid rising tensions with China.
The gathering at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library is in some ways a backtrack by Mr. McCarthy, who promised during the midterm elections that if he were elected speaker, he would travel to Taiwan to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen in a show of defiance to China. Mr. McCarthy’s predecessor, Nancy Pelosi of California, did so last year, when she was the House speaker.
Instead, Mr. McCarthy and Ms. Tsai opted for a meeting in the United States that was considered the less-risky option to Washington and Taipei. Leaders in both capitals are trying to balance a desire to shore up Taiwan’s ties with the United States, its far most powerful partner, against an interest in avoiding steps that might prompt aggressive military encroachments from Beijing.
China has so far not announced major military exercises around Taiwan and may want to avoid a repeat of the crisis after Ms. Pelosi’s visit, when Beijing canceled several diplomatic, military and climate policy engagements with the United States and held days of military exercises in seven live-fire zones around Taiwan.
Yet Mr. McCarthy, who has frequently accused President Biden of being insufficiently tough on China, is also eager to demonstrate how forceful he is willing to be in challenging Beijing. His decision to meet with Taiwan’s president so early in his tenure could still escalate tensions with China, where leaders regard such high-level meetings — wherever they occur — as an affront to their claim to the island.
“China has to prevent this from becoming a routine, or annual, meeting between the Taiwan president and the House speaker,” said Bonny Lin, a former director for China and Taiwan policy at the Pentagon, who runs the China Power Project at the Center for Security and International Studies. “Regardless of which soil it’s happening on, it’s still a meeting with the speaker of the House, and in person.”
Washington shifted diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China in 1979, and since then Beijing has objected to meetings between senior American and Taiwanese officials or politicians as provocative acts. Beijing treats Taiwan as an illegitimate breakaway that must be recovered. The U.S. president and other top officials do not meet Taiwanese leaders, but lower-level contacts have grown under the Trump and Biden administrations, prompting the ire of Beijing.
Though Taiwanese presidents have regularly transited the United States and rank-and-file members of Congress have routinely visited Taiwan over the past few decades, the pace of congressional trips has accelerated since last year, as lawmakers rush to show solidarity and pledge to deepen cooperation with Taiwan, arming it against a potential war with China.
During his meeting with Ms. Tsai, Mr. McCarthy is scheduled to be accompanied by a bipartisan delegation of lawmakers from a new House committee devised in part to scrutinize the activities of the Chinese Communist Party. Members of that panel plan to spend the rest of the week meeting with top executives from technology and film companies to talk about Chinese censorship, the risks posed by artificial intelligence and other matters of significance to those industries.
Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is scheduled to lead another bipartisan delegation of lawmakers to Taiwan this week that is expected to meet with Ms. Tsai on Saturday, according to two people familiar with their itinerary.
Ms. Tsai’s attempt to keep a relatively low profile during her latest tour of the United States and Central America indicated a desire to avoid giving Beijing excuses to stage a display of military might similar to the one after Ms. Pelosi’s visit. During her stops in New York and California — flying to and from Central America — Ms. Tsai eschewed opportunities to give major political speeches, meeting officials like Mr. McCarthy behind closed doors and keeping secret a session last week with Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic leader.
Still, her visit has not progressed entirely without incident. On Wednesday, Chinese maritime authorities announced patrols in two areas east of Taiwan, but there was no indication that naval ships were involved.
The Mainland Affairs Council in Taipei, which handles relations with China, denounced the patrols, saying that they could interfere with shipping. The Taiwanese Ministry of Defense also said it had spotted a Chinese navy ship passing through the Bashi Channel, which lies between Taiwan and the Philippines.
Chinese officials have said they will monitor Ms. Tsai’s meeting with Mr. McCarthy and threatened retaliation. Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters on Tuesday that Beijing would “resolutely and vigorously defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” A statement posted by the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles called Mr. McCarthy’s meeting with Ms. Tsai “a grave violation of the One China principle.”
Beijing demands that all countries accept its One China principle, which dictates that Taiwan is part of its territory. Instead, Washington maintains a One China policy, which acknowledges Beijing’s claim without endorsing it.
Ms. Tsai’s visit comes amid an intense debate in Washington about how to step up weapons shipments assistance to the island and whether the United States should commit to aid Taiwan if China attacks. Last year, acting with bipartisan support, Congress authorized a five-year pilot program to furnish Taiwan with up to $2 billion for military training and weapons purchases and $1 billion annually in presidential drawdown authority as a display of the United States’ commitment to act on statutory requirements directing Washington to help Taiwan maintain its defenses.
But the $2 billion-per-year program was never funded as envisioned. Lawmakers who were left scrambling at the end of the year to pull together a spending package ended up supplanting it with loan guarantees that Taiwan, a cash-rich entity, is generally assumed will not use. The end result was that the United States projected a weaker signal of solidarity than intended, putting more pressure on Congress to right the balance this year and fueling Republican ire.
Republicans have criticized the Biden administration for refusing to declare unequivocally that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily if Beijing tries to invade. Since taking office, Mr. Biden has embraced that position three times, only to have his aides walk it back.
Several lawmakers in both parties have speculated that any successes Russia racks up in its invasion of Ukraine will embolden China to try a similar land grab in Taiwan.
Ms. Tsai’s tour of the United States also comes as the island is preparing for presidential elections to choose her successor, as term limits prevent her from running again. The contest in January is expected to pit Ms. Tsai’s successor in the Democratic Progressive Party, which has positioned itself as the guardian of Taiwanese autonomy, against a candidate from the opposition Nationalist Party, which advocates close ties with China.
Experts say the race could be heavily influenced by what steps Washington and Beijing take in the months ahead, including whether China reacts militarily to this week’s meeting.
“The problem is, for Beijing, either way they lose,” said Yun Sun, a co-director of the East Asia Program and the director of the China Program at the Stimson Center. “If they overreact, they will lose because the U.S. will provide more support to Taiwan, and Taiwanese public opinion will be even more against reunification. But if they don’t react, this will be perceived as acquiescence.”