A planned meeting between Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California this week has raised concerns of a repeat of the pressure campaign China launched last year. when then-speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei.
At the time, Beijing surrounded the island democracy with unprecedented military exercises, firing multiple missiles into the surrounding waters and sending dozens of fighter jets hurtling across a sensitive median line dividing the Taiwan Strait.
He also cut off contact with the United States over a range of issues, from military issues to the fight against climate change, in retaliation for what he considered a violation of his sovereignty.
This time, Beijing has already threatened to “resolutely counterattack” if a meeting between Tsai and McCarthy takes place.
See why tensions are rising between the US and China over Taiwan
He also sharply criticized Washington for allowing Tsai to stop in the United States while she was heading to and from official visits to Central America, warning that this could lead to a “serious” confrontation between the two powers.
A defiant Tsai stood her ground and vowed, as she embarked on her 10-day trip, not to let “external pressure” stop Taiwan from connecting with the world and like-minded democracies.
But the optics of the meeting, which will take place in California and not Taiwan, and its timing (at a particularly thorny moment in China and China’s foreign relations) Ahead of a presidential election in Taiwan that could reset the tone of its relationship with Beijing, Beijing may act more carefully this time around, or at least not escalate further, analysts say.
“This puts the burden on China not to overreact, because any overreaction will only alienate China from the world,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Beijing won’t watch Tsai’s moves closely as it calibrates its response and decides how much military power to use during her meeting with a U.S. lawmaker on U.S. soil.
The opacity of the Chinese system – and the potential for competing interests within its vast bureaucracy – also makes it difficult to accurately predict its response.
“Every time Taiwan does something China doesn’t like, the Chinese react with their own military coercion,” Sun said. But in the current situation, “they have to consider the consequences of an overreaction,” he added.
The long-awaited meeting, which McCarthy’s office announced earlier this week would take place on Wednesday, also comes at a precarious time in US-China relations.
Washington and Beijing struggle to stabilize their communication amid rising tensions over issues ranging from a suspected downed Chinese surveillance balloon to semiconductor supply chains, raising the risk of potential damage to that relationship if Beijing lashes out as it did when Tsai met with Pelosi.
Taiwan is still feeling the consequences of that response last August, with Chinese military forces now making regular incursions into what had previously been an informal but widely respected border between Beijing and Taipei in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan’s official Central News Agency also reported on Monday that Tsai would meet with McCarthy, citing Tsai’s presidential office.
See image of a Chinese balloon floating over Taiwan
But a meeting between Tsai and the Republican majority leader in the US House of Representatives, who is second in line to the presidency, would mark another symbolic moment for Taiwan and the United States, which have only non-governmental ties. officers.
For Tsai, who is entering the final year of her two-term presidency, “it is clearly a culminating event,” according to Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Taiwan Studies Program at the Australian National University. “She has the image of the Taiwanese president who has taken US-Taiwan relations to new heights and who … has been able to give Taiwan almost unprecedented international visibility,” she said.
That increased visibility – and greater cooperation with the United States – came after increasing pressure from China on the island, which is less than 177 kilometers (110 miles) from the mainland coast.
The Chinese Communist Party claims the autonomous island democracy as its own despite never having controlled it, and has vowed to take the island, by force if necessary.
The party has undertaken a broad expansion of its military capabilities over the past decade under the leadership of Xi Jinping, and has increased its ever-present economic, diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan.
This has raised concerns, among some in Washington, that Beijing is preparing for an invasion, although China’s official language still suggests that such a scenario is not its preferred option to achieve the purported goal of “reunification.”
It is those pressures – and how to support Taiwan against Beijing’s unilateral actions – that are likely to be on the table when Tsai, McCarthy and a bipartisan group of US lawmakers meet on Wednesday.
Congress has been a pillar of growing American support for Taiwan in recent years. Lawmakers periodically visit the island and push for bipartisan legislation that improves support and cooperation.
While the United States changed diplomatic relations with Beijing decades ago, it maintains unofficial ties with Taiwan and is required by law to provide the democratic island with the means to defend itself.
Under Washington’s long-standing “One China” policy, the United States recognizes China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never officially recognized Beijing’s claim to the island of 23 million people.
Although McCarthy doesn’t have Pelosi’s decades-long China defense record, the California Republican is now a leading voice pushing for closer scrutiny of Beijing, and meeting with Tsai could help him burnish that image.
Last month, McCarthy told reporters that meeting Tsai in the United States would not affect whether he travels to Taiwan in the future, something he had previously said he wanted to do.
A meeting in California, on American soil, is widely considered to be less provocative to Beijing than a McCarthy visit to Taiwan.
Pelosi’s trip – the first by a lawmaker of that rank to the island in 25 years – generated a flashpoint of nationalist and anti-American rhetoric in mainland China.
This time, so far, the internal conversation in China’s tightly controlled media sphere has been significantly muted.
But analysts say the stakes are high – including for Beijing itself – over how to respond.
As Taiwan prepares for presidential elections in January, a fierce response could alienate voters from Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), widely seen as friendlier to Beijing.
It could also clash with another high-profile trip now underway: a tour of mainland China by former Taiwan president and senior KMT member Ma Ying-jeou, the first visit by a current or former Taiwan leader since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. .
Ma’s tour is a “once-in-a-half-century opportunity to send a conciliatory message between the two sides; Beijing should not want to ruin it,” said Sung, the political scientist.
China is also well aware that its actions toward Taiwan are under significantly increased global attention following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin, a close diplomatic associate of Xi. Putin’s rhetoric on Ukraine has echoes of how Xi talks about Taiwan.
Beijing has recently sought to position itself as a peace agent in that conflict, especially as it aims to repair frayed ties with Europe.
This week, while Tsai is expected to meet McCarthy, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will travel to China, an important opportunity that Xi may not want to overshadow with military posturing.
An aggressive response also risks fueling confrontation with the United States, less than six months after Xi and US President Joe Biden called for improved communication during a face-to-face meeting in Bali.
“(A less overtly aggressive response) would imply that Beijing does not want to escalate tensions with the United States to a level that could risk spiraling out of control,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.
“A reset of US-China relations is not on the agenda, but a easing of tension is not beyond the realm of possibility.”
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