Taiwan’s president warns ‘democracy is under threat’ after McCarthy meeting

Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen urged continued support for her country and warned “democracy is under threat” after meeting US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California on Wednesday.

In brief public remarks following the meeting, Tsai joined McCarthy, the most high-profile US official to meet a Taiwanese president on US soil, in front of Ronald Reagan’s presidential aircraft and invoked the late president’s role in protecting and fortifying US-Taiwan relations.

“We once again find ourselves in a world where democracy is under threat, and the urgency of keeping the beacon of freedom shining cannot be understated,” Tsai said.

Tsai said in her talks with the US lawmakers she had “highlighted a belief which president Reagan championed, that to preserve peace, we must be strong”.

“I would like to add that we are stronger when we are together,” Tsai said following the meeting, which included a bipartisan group of 18 lawmakers.

The meeting on Wednesday marked a compromise between McCarthy’s and Tsai’s desires for a more high-profile US-Taiwan engagement and efforts to avoid a violent reaction from Beijing.

Hours before the meeting, China’s People’s Liberation Army sent the Shandong, its newest aircraft carrier in service, through the Bashi Channel, which separates Taiwan and the Philippines, on its first navigation training in the western Pacific, Taiwan’s defence ministry said.

“PLA’s deliberate action has jeopardised regional stability and caused tension in Taiwan Strait; however, external pressures will not hinder our determination to move towards the world and defend our country,” it added.

Prior to Tsai’s overseas trip, Joe Biden’s administration repeatedly warned China not to use the meeting as a pretext for greater aggression against Taiwan, which Beijing claims as part of its territory and has threatened to annex if Taipei refuses to submit under its control indefinitely.

McCarthy is expected to hold a press conference after his lunch with Tsai and the other lawmakers, who include Mike Gallagher, the Republican head of the new House China committee, and his Democratic counterpart Raja Krishnamoorthi.

US efforts to strengthen Taipei’s defences, and high-profile initiatives among American politicians in support of Taiwan, have become common amid increasing hawkishness on China. Over the past year, Beijing has hit back against what it calls interference by foreign powers in its internal affairs.

While Beijing has threatened to “take resolute steps to safeguard our sovereignty and territorial integrity” in the run-up to the meeting, the manoeuvre by its carrier group remained below the level of the war games it unleashed after McCarthy’s predecessor as Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taipei in August.

Last summer, the PLA fired a volley of missiles over Taiwan, some of which landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. China’s military also simulated a naval blockade of Taiwan and operations that would be part of an invasion.

Beijing’s reaction has been more measured during Tsai’s 10-day overseas trip. When Tsai stopped over in New York on her way to two of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in Central America, the PLA flew several aircraft across the Taiwan Strait median line, a move it often uses to express displeasure at Taiwanese or US actions.

On Tuesday, as Tsai was about to land in Los Angeles, a provincial maritime safety administration in Fujian said one of its newest and largest coast guard vessels had started an “inspection patrol” in the Taiwan Strait. But both moves were far below the scale of last year’s manoeuvres.

The Simi Valley meeting is the most sensitive leg of Tsai’s trip. During her New York transit, she met with Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic House minority leader, and three other members of Congress, but her office did not confirm these meetings until Tuesday.

Tensions between Washington and Beijing have risen since Biden came to office. US defence officials have in recent months said they do not envision any imminent Chinese military action towards Taiwan, but have expressed concerns about the possibility of an attack at some point.

Biden has repeatedly warned the US military would intervene if China conducted an unprovoked attack on Taiwan, but stressed in meetings with president Xi Jinping that he wants to manage US-China competition responsibly and is “not looking for conflict”.

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