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Taiwan’s president to stop in U.S., raising prospect of friction with China

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen at a news conference in Taipei in January. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
6 min

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen will visit the United States at the end of the month, stopping over in New York and California — where she will meet with a top U.S. lawmaker — on her way to and from Central America to shore up ties with her island democracy’s few remaining diplomatic allies.

With Beijing aggressively pushing to upend the U.S.-led international order, Honduran President Xiomara Castro last week said her country was looking to forge diplomatic relations with China, which means it would cut off official relations with Taiwan. The move would leave just 13 countries in the world that recognize Taiwan.

Tsai will travel from March 29 to April 7, stopping first in New York before heading to Guatemala and Belize and traveling through Los Angeles on the return leg, a spokesperson in Taiwan’s presidential office confirmed Tuesday without providing an itinerary for any U.S. engagements.

The trip, which will mark Tsai’s seventh visit to the United States since taking office in 2016, will include a meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California on April 5, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plans have not been announced.

Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy comes in the wake of a highly publicized visit by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Taiwan last August, which resulted in a retaliatory show of Chinese military force that included ballistic missiles fired over Taiwan and into Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

In response to the announcement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Tuesday that Beijing “firmly opposes the leader of the Taiwan region sneaking off to the U.S. for any reason.”

Wang repeated previous accusations that the visit constituted a “hollowing out” of Washington’s commitment to the one-China policy — which neither challenges nor endorses Beijing’s claims over the island — and called Taiwan’s pursuit of independence “a dead end.”

“Any attempts by Taiwan to collude with foreign forces to provoke independence is doomed to fail,” he said.

A senior official in the Biden administration said in a briefing Monday night that the one-China policy remains unchanged. “The United States opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo by either side,” the official said on the condition of anonymity for a background briefing. “We don’t support Taiwan independence, and we expect cross-strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means.”

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Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory and says it seeks “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, which has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party.

Observers in Taiwan have suggested that this time, Beijing’s retaliation has taken the form of Honduran threats to break off ties with Taipei.

Chong-Han Wu, associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei, predicted that Castro would follow through on breaking off ties as part of a stronger response from Beijing in “revenge for Tsai’s visit.”

McCarthy, who last year had said he wanted to visit Taiwan if he became speaker, has not ruled out a trip to the island — perhaps next year — and has said that China cannot dictate his travel.

“Transits” of the United States by high-level Taiwanese officials are in keeping with “long-standing U.S. practice,” said the U.S. official, noting that every Taiwanese president has done so.

Since the United States does not maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, regular trips by Taiwanese leaders are routinely framed by both sides as transits rather than official visits.

“Transit diplomacy is, to a considerable extent, a thermometer of Taiwan’s relations with the U.S.,” said Chung Chih-tung, assistant research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan, a government-funded think tank. Though unofficial, Tsai’s trip reaffirms U.S. support for Taiwan, said Chung, and lets Taipei know “they are not alone in confronting China’s pressure.”

Tsai’s trip also comes as her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, makes the first visit to China of any former president of Taiwan. Ma is a leader in the opposition Kuomintang Party (KMT), which favors closer ties with Beijing.

McCarthy’s office has been advised that the KMT would probably exploit any trip he made to Taiwan for political purposes in the run-up to the island’s presidential election next year. The KMT has sought to portray the cross-strait policy of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party as unnecessarily provocative, saying it is increasing the risk of war with China.

The senior U.S. official said “transits are not visits — they are private and unofficial.” The official also said Taiwan officials have typically met with members of Congress on their stops in the United States.

“We see no reason for Beijing to turn this transit … which is consistent with long-standing U.S. policy, into anything other than what it is,” the official said. “It should not be used as a pretext to step up any aggressive activity around the Taiwan Strait.”

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The administration does not expect to see a repeat of last August in response to Tsai’s transit through the United States, the official said.

“This is … a pretty standard transit well within precedent,” the official said. “So our expectation is that the PRC is not going to step up any aggressive activity,” the official said, using the abbreviation for China’s official name, the People’s Republic of China.

The official added that Biden expects to speak with Xi “soon” by phone, while China’s Foreign Ministry said there wouldn’t be any communications “just for communication’s sake.”

Honduras will not be a stop on Tsai’s Central American tour, according Alexander Tah-ray Yui, Taiwan’s vice minister of foreign affairs. Diplomatic relations have been a point of contention between the two sides since Castro took office last year and they have been unable to reach a consensus.

The Chinese Communist Party has for decades pursued a strategy of isolating Taiwan’s democratically elected government by picking off its diplomatic partners. During Tsai’s tenure as president, Nicaragua, Panama, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Solomon Islands have all defected to Beijing.

Honduran Foreign Minister Eduardo Enrique Reina had previously said the decision to switch recognition to China was in part due to his country’s mounting debt, which includes $600 million owed to Taiwan, according to Reuters.

“We have repeatedly warned Honduras not to fall into the trap of China’s flashy promises,” Taiwan’s Yui said Tuesday. “We will not play the game of money diplomacy with China. It is them conducting checkbook diplomacy, not us.”

Nakashima reported from Washington. Vic Chiang and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.