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White House tries to keep China calm while Taiwan’s Tsai visits the US

White House tries to keep China calm while Taiwan’s Tsai visits the US
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in 2020 (Photo: Betsy Joles/Bloomberg)

The Biden administration is going to unprecedented lengths to play down the importance of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the US this week, as officials try to keep an already soured relationship with China from getting any worse.

Although China already has protested against the visit, several people familiar with the matter say they believe China’s response may be more muted than earlier feared. The people, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations, said Tsai scrapped some events and limited her press engagements, which were seen as most likely to draw Beijing’s ire. 

The administration is also relieved that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who is set to meet Tsai next week when she visits Los Angeles, decided to hold back, at least for now, on a trip to the country. He has acknowledged concerns over escalation — despite demands for an even more hawkish stance from some of his fellow Republicans.

“This approach achieves the goals McCarthy, Tsai and the administration have while making it tricky for Beijing to respond in an escalatory way,” said Eric Sayers, a non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s an ideal pathway.”

It’s a difficult balancing act for President Joe Biden’s team, which is determined to maintain support for Taiwan as a beacon of democracy and, more practically, as the source for the vast majority of the world’s most advanced microchips. 

At the same time, the US is trying to calm tensions with China after a series of crises including the furor over the alleged Chinese spy balloon in February, which followed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last summer. That trip led to unprecedented military drills by China around Taiwan and the suspension of military contacts between the two superpowers.

Both sides have also fanned the flames with more heated rhetoric. President Xi Jinping warned the US and other nations against adopting a policy of “comprehensive containment and suppression”, while American lawmakers routinely portray China as the gravest threat to the US in decades. Earlier Thursday, two leading China hawks in Congress introduced a bill that would impose sanctions on China should it go ahead with an invasion.

The transit through the US is Tsai’s seventh as president and her first since 2019. She arrived in New York on Wednesday and was set to depart on Friday for Guatemala and then Belize, two of the few remaining countries that recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty. Just this week, Honduras announced it would establish diplomatic ties with China, ending them with Taiwan after more than eight decades.

For all the effort to portray Tsai’s visit as ordinary, her events were freighted with symbolism or meant to make a point. During a stop at a grocery store in Brooklyn, Tsai tasted Taiwanese-made dried pineapple. In 2021, China banned imports of the fruit.

“Taiwan is at the front lines of democracy,” Tsai said at an event on Wednesday evening. “The more united Taiwanese are, the safer Taiwan will be, and the safer the world will be.”

The true test will come next week, after Tsai wraps up her Central American tour and passes through Los Angeles. There she’s set to meet McCarthy and has been invited to give a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

That meeting was considered a concession: At the request of the Taiwanese government, McCarthy decided to put off a potential trip to Taiwan until after presidential elections next year and instead host Taiwan’s leader on US soil.

At the same time Tsai visited New York, Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Foxconn Technology Group, was in the US on a trip of his own. Gou is among those who plan to vie for Taiwan’s presidency.

Scaled-down itinerary

After consultations among McCarthy’s staff, the administration and the Taiwanese government, Tsai’s itinerary in the US has been scaled back and is now unlikely to include a speech at the Reagan library, according to people familiar with the matter.

In a sign that the White House was trying to keep the issue under control and preempt any overreaction or miscommunication, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan held a telephone call with his Chinese counterpart last week that both sides decided not to publicise.

“This transit is routine,” Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink told reporters on Thursday in one of the many press briefings administration officials held on Tsai’s visit. “We see no reason for Beijing to turn this transit into something that it is not or to use it to overreact.”

Yet just as visits by Taiwanese leaders aren’t new, China’s anger over them isn’t either. In years past, China has said the stopovers in the US disguise Taiwanese leaders’ desire for independence from China. And China’s charge d’affaires in the US, Xu Xueyan, made a similar argument when briefing reporters on Wednesday.

‘Wrong signal’

“The US keeps saying that it is not a visit and that there are precedents, but they should not use past mistakes as excuses for repeating them today,” she said. “It will send the wrong signal to the world and will once again have a severe impact on the bilateral relationship.”

Although Beijing is already ramping up the rhetoric, the people familiar with the situation said China may decide to mute its response once the visit is over. They pointed to Beiijng’s efforts to portray itself as the peacemaker in Ukraine and convince Europe and the Global South that, unlike the US, China is a responsible nation. French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen are set to visit Beijing around the same time Tsai is due to meet McCarthy.

China’s reaction is also likely to be influenced by next year’s presidential election in Taiwan, in which Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party will square off against the Kuomintang, which has generally had warmer ties with Beijing. Any Chinese aggression tends to bolster the pro-independence DPP at the expense of the Kuomintang.

“While we should expect Chinese retaliation, its scope and severity are still an open question,” said Wendy Cutler, a veteran US diplomat and trade negotiator. “If it’s at or beyond the Pelosi level, don’t count on efforts to re-engage bilaterally on more senior levels being in the cards any time soon.” BM/DM


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