Against the objections of Chinese officials, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Texas on Sunday during her much-scrutinized overseas trip.
Tsai departed Taiwan on Saturday and made a planned stopover in Houston en route to Central America.
Before her trip, China had urged the United States not to allow Tsai to transit through the United States to avoid “sending the wrong signal to Taiwanese independence forces,” the Associated Press reported. Beijing officials consider Taiwan, a self-governing democratic island, as part of China and are extremely sensitive to questions regarding its sovereignty.
The meeting with Cruz and Abbott was not announced ahead of time. In a statement, the senator said that he was “honored” to meet with Tsai and that they had a “wide-ranging discussion.”
“We discussed our mutual opportunity to upgrade the stature of our bilateral relations in a wide-ranging discussion that addressed arms sales, diplomatic exchanges and economic relations,” Cruz said. “Furthering economic cooperation between our two nations must be a priority; increased access to Taiwanese markets will benefit Texas farmers, ranchers and small-business owners alike.”
Abbott expressed similar sentiments.
“Thanks to our favorable regulatory and legal climate, Texas remains and will continue to be a premier destination for Taiwanese businesses to expand and thrive,” the governor said in a statement. “I look forward to strengthening Texas’ bond with Taiwan and continuing my dialogue with President Tsai to create even more opportunity and a better future for our citizens.”
Chinese Consul General Li Qiangmin of Houston had sent Cruz a letter asking him not to meet with Tsai.
“For U.S. leaders in administration and legislature, not to make any contact with Taiwan leaders nor send any implication of support of ‘Taiwan Independence’ are in the interests of China, the U.S. and the international community,” Li wrote in his letter. “So, dear Senator, I sincerely hope that you will neither meet, nor have any contact with Tsai during her upcoming visit to Houston, and continue to play a significant role in promoting mutual understanding and friendship between the two peoples of China and the U.S.”
In his letter, Li called the “Taiwan issue” the most sensitive one in Chinese-U. S. relations and acknowledged that it had been in the news media lately. Tensions regarding U.S.-Chinese-Taiwanese relations have been high since early December, when President-elect Donald Trump accepted a phone call from Tsai, breaking with nearly four decades of protocol in speaking directly with the Taiwanese leader.
“In order not to interfere with the China-U. S. cooperation, I believe proper handling with Taiwan issue is always necessary and wise for all parties relevant,” Li wrote.
Cruz said in his statement Sunday that he had received Li’s letter but that China’s wishes would not dictate whom he would or would not meet.
“The People’s Republic of China needs to understand that in America we make decisions about meeting with visitors for ourselves,” Cruz said. “This is not about the PRC. This is about the U.S. relationship with Taiwan, an ally we are legally bound to defend. The Chinese do not give us veto power over those with whom they meet. We will continue to meet with anyone, including the Taiwanese, as we see fit.”
Cruz’s office confirmed that the meeting took place at the Omni Houston Hotel but did not specify how long it lasted. Photos released by Cruz’s and Abbott’s offices showed numerous officials seated and smiling as they talked at the hotel. On a small table, three tiny flags — one each for Taiwan, Texas and the United States — fanned out of a single stand.
The United States maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan until 1979, when it opened formal diplomatic relations with China. One major stipulation for doing so was a U.S. acknowledgment of China’s position that “there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China,” and therefore breaking off its official ties with Taiwan, as it could recognize only a single government of “one China.”
However, the United States could continue to maintain unofficial ties with Taiwan, and has done so through the decades. In April 1979, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act “to help maintain peace, security, and stability in the Western Pacific” and to continue “commercial, cultural and other relations” with Taiwan.
“The United States and Taiwan enjoy a robust unofficial relationship,” the State Department’s page on Taiwan notes.
Cruz said that the existing U.S.-Taiwan relationship was “not on the negotiating table.”
“It is bound in statute and founded on common interests,” he said. “I look forward to working with President Tsai to strengthen our partnership.”
The meeting — as well as lawmakers’ bold statements about it — is sure to upset Chinese officials further. It is not necessarily unusual for American lawmakers to meet with Taiwanese presidents as they pass through the United States. In June, in her first trip to the United States as the president, Tsai met with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) during a stopover in Miami.
However, Cruz and Abbott’s meeting with Tsai in Texas is particularly significant amid heightened tensions between the United States and China. In 1995, Beijing conducted ballistic exercises intended to intimidate Taiwan after the United States granted a visa for then-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to speak at Cornell University, his alma mater. At the time, no Taiwanese leader had been allowed into the United States since 1979.
Late Sunday night, the Chinese state-run Global Times published an editorial warning both the United States and Taiwan that further “provocations” would result in additional military pressure on Taiwan. The editorial did not directly address Tsai’s meeting with U.S. lawmakers in Houston but more broadly referred to comments Trump had made last month suggesting the United States would not necessarily be bound by the one-China policy.
“It is hard to say if they are taking a step back. But the mainland does not fear their provocations,” the Global Times editorial read. “The mainland has seized the initiative. The U.S. and Taiwan now should restrain, or be forced to restrain, themselves.”
The state-controlled newspaper said Beijing would not hesitate to break ties with the U.S. and take “revenge” if Trump were to abandon the policy. “If Trump reneges on the one-China policy after taking office, the Chinese people will demand the government to take revenge,” the editorial read. “There is no room for bargaining.”
According to Tsai’s office, the Taiwanese president plans to visit Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, four Central American countries that still maintain official diplomatic ties with Taiwan. On the return leg, she plans to make another U.S. stopover in San Francisco, then fly back to Taiwan on Jan. 14.
Neither Trump nor members of his transition team would be meeting Tsai while she is in the United States, Trump transition spokeswoman Jessica Ditto told the Associated Press Saturday.
“Nobody’s ever mentioned that to me,” Trump told reporters on New Year’s Eve, when asked about Tsai’s trip, according to the AP. “I’m not meeting with anybody until after January 20, because it’s a little bit inappropriate from a protocol standpoint. But we’ll see.”
This post has been updated.