The last time a U.S. speaker of the house met Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the visit prompted extensive blowback in China. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as China’s military is formally called, responded briskly, conducting days of military exercises around the self-governed island. These were no normal military exercises either. PLA ships and aircraft surrounded Taiwan at six separate points in what could only be described as a dress rehearsal for a hypothetical blockade. Missiles were launched over the island, with some of them landing in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Tsai’s expected meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California this week isn’t expected to generate the same kind of military retaliation from the PLA — a high-ranking politician traveling to Taiwan is more provocative to Beijing than a Taiwanese president doing the same on U.S. soil. After all, multiple Taiwanese presidents have made brief stopovers to the United States on their way to other destinations. Flying to the U.S. isn’t some new development for Tsai either; this will be the seventh trip during her presidency.
The difference with Tsai’s current trip, however, is that it comes at a time when U.S.-China relations are at their most perilous since the two countries established formal diplomatic ties almost 45 years ago. Washington and Beijing spent decades flirting with each other as partners and possible friends. Now, the terms “partners” and “friends” aren’t even in the vocabulary. Strategic competition has replaced strategic empathy.
The U.S. is convinced that China is intent on displacing it as the world’s leading power and actively working to destroy the U.S.-dominated international system. U.S. defense officials categorize China as “the pacing threat,” while U.S. generals frequently come to Congress for more resources in order to outcompete the PLA. Being tough on China is a political winner as well — look no further than the House Select Committee on China, which was approved by an overwhelming bipartisan vote at the beginning of the 118th Congress.
So while it’s true that Tsai’s sojourn to the U.S. isn’t unprecedented, it’s also true that Washington can’t assume China will sweep the trip under the rug. U.S. intelligence officials reportedly believe that Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy on U.S. soil won’t produce the same animus in Chinese policy circles that Pelosi’s trip to the island did. But the truth is U.S. officials have limited information to work with and don’t have a good idea of how Chinese President Xi Jinping will react in any given situation.
It’s one reason the Biden administration is attempting to make Tsai’s events in New York and California as low-key as possible. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke to his Chinese counterpart about the trip ahead of time, Tsai’s events are behind closed doors, and senior State Department officials are treating the entire affair as an inconsequential phenomenon. The idea behind this is to lower the temperature in the hope Xi won’t feel the pressure to respond militarily.
The administration may wind up disappointed. If there is one issue China feels most passionate about, it’s Taiwan. Xi is hardly the first chairman of the Chinese Communist Party to remind U.S. officials about Taiwan’s importance to the Chinese nation, but Xi has certainly gone above and beyond his predecessors. Reunifying Taiwan with the Chinese mainland is an integral component of Xi’s “national rejuvenation” campaign,” and he has repeatedly referenced Taiwan’s status as a core red line. Any hint of pro-independence tendencies on the self-ruled island won’t be greeted kindly in Beijing, and any attempts by outside powers (particularly the U.S.) to encourage such tendencies will be treated as a provocation.
Washington ignores this at its own peril. As if to underscore the point, nine Chinese aircraft crossed the Taiwan Strait’s median line separating the island from the mainland as Tsai’s U.S. visit got underway. The entire Taiwan issue is a geopolitical game of cat-and-mouse, where U.S. meetings with Taiwanese officials, billions of dollars in U.S. arms sales to the island, and off-handed comments by President Joe Biden himself feed into China’s worst-case assumptions about Washington chipping away at the status quo. Meanwhile, every Chinese military drill is viewed in Washington as yet more evidence of a virtually inevitable Chinese invasion. The feedback loop is counterproductive and potentially dangerous.
One must therefore address the elephant in the room: Is McCarthy’s pending meeting with Tsai providing more fuel for that potentially dangerous feedback loop? Is there a benefit to the meeting we aren’t seeing?
Politically, of course, there is a benefit. McCarthy wants to show he’s just as supportive of Taiwan’s democracy as his predecessor, Nancy Pelosi. He wanted to make the same trip as Pelosi did eight month earlier but was warned by the Taiwanese government that it may not be a great idea given the current regional dynamics. No U.S. politician wants to be seen snubbing a Taiwanese official, lest they be perceived as weak on China. The top Democrat in the House, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, already had face time with Tsai when she landed in New York. There is no plausible scenario whereby McCarthy, the top Republican on Capitol Hill, doesn’t keep up with his Democratic counterpart.
Yet let’s not be under any illusions: the McCarthy-Tsai meeting in California won’t be substantive, nothing tangible will be agreed on, and the specifics of what will be discussed won’t be released due to the diplomatic sensitivities with the Chinese. The session will throw yet another obstacle in a bilateral relationship already teeming with them, from Chinese spy balloons and the war in Ukraine to infrastructure.
U.S. officials are having difficulty getting their Chinese opposites on the phone. This week’s events won’t help the cause.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
©2023 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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