WASHINGTON – The moment was historic — a U.S. House speaker meeting Wednesday with the president of Taiwan for a rare visit on American soil, a high-profile encounter designed to boost support for the island government but already drawing blowback from an enraged China.
For Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen the meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California was the most sensitive stop on her transit through the U.S. and Central America, a whirlwind diplomatic mission that is delicate, secretive and politically fraught.
But for the newly elected House speaker it would signal the start of his foray into foreign affairs. The Republican leader has focused more on domestic politics at home than international concerns abroad. Outspoken, even bellicose, against China, McCarthy chose to send a more measured and diplomatic nod of support to Taiwan with the meeting.
“It’s a very good debut,” said Newt Gingrich, the Republican former speaker who led a delegation to Taiwan decades ago and advises McCarthy.
“I think it’s a useful thing to communicate to a country — that’s under enormous pressure — that they have real allies,” Gingrich said ahead of the meeting. The Taiwanese, he said, will “see it as a morale boost.”
The private meeting between Tsai and McCarthy came against the very public backdrop of heightened U.S. focus on China over its actions at home and abroad, particularly China's potential aggression enforcing its claims over the island of Taiwan.
The Biden administration is watching China’s interactions with Russia vis-a-vis the war in Ukraine, while Congress is probing China over a host of issues, from the Chinese spy balloon that floated over North America earlier this year to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic to Chinese social media giant TikTok’s data privacy practices.
The United States broke off official ties with Taiwan in 1979, when it formally established diplomatic relations with the Beijing government. While the U.S. acknowledges the “one-China” policy in which Beijing lays claim to the island of Taiwan as territory, the U.S. does not endorse China's claim to the island and remains Taiwan’s key provider of military and defense assistance.
The session with McCarthy, who as House speaker is second in line of succession to the president, was Tsai’s most high-level U.S. visit during her visit, which also included a stop in New York last week. At that time, she met Friday with three U.S. senators — Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., all members of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- and with House Democratic leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries.
Details on the event Wednesday, which included a bipartisan showing of Republican and Democratic lawmakers, had been closely held, a reminder of the pressures on her island government under the watchful eye of China.
It was the first known visit between a House speaker and a Taiwan president on American territory since the U.S. broke off formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, experts said.
“It’s particularly an opportunity to demonstrate how strong the relationship with the United States is,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, the managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund.
“Of course, Congress is part of that," she said. Because the lack of formal diplomatic relations greatly limits any interaction between Taiwan and U.S. leaders, "it becomes even more important that they have meetings with members of Congress.”
The Chinese government has expressed its displeasure ahead of Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy, and threatened countermeasures over any contact with the House speaker. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Tuesday it will follow the developments and “resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Chinese state media announced Wednesday morning that vessels have started conducting a joint patrol and inspection operation in the central and northern waters of the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said it had also tracked the People’s Liberation Army’s Shandong aircraft carrier passing through the Bashi Strait, to Taiwan’s southeast.
McCarthy, a sandwich shop operator in Bakersfield, California, before working as a congressional aide and being elected to Congress, is not known for vast foreign policy experience.
Unlike Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, who used her speaker's gavel as a calling card to bring U.S. influence and aid around the globe, McCarthy is focusing his speakership more inward on the domestic needs of Americans.
While McCarthy has led congressional delegation trips abroad — to Israel, for example, and to Normandy, France, to mark the anniversary of the end of World War II — and had expressed interest in visiting Taiwan, he had not yet made plans for his own trip.
Pelosi's 2022 Taiwan visit drew fierce rebuke from China with live-fire drills that included firing missiles over the island. In December, China sent planes and ships toward Taiwan in a 24-hour display of force.
With the new speaker, it was decided that Tsai and McCarthy would meet in California.
McCarthy’s more cautious foreign policy approach makes sense politically for the new leader as he tries to steer a Republican party that has become more isolationist, and less willing to engage the U.S. abroad as an earlier generation of lawmakers.
McCarthy barely won his own position as House speaker in January after a grueling party election that took 15 public ballots to win over his reluctant hard-right colleagues — a sizable faction of skeptics who could conceivably vote to oust McCarthy over any wrong turn.
Still, McCarthy stood up a new House Select Committee on China, drawing wide-ranging bipartisan support from Democrats, executing a long-running idea of his to drill down on the China’s rising influence in the U.S. and the world.
The venue of the Reagan library and ranch in Simi Valley, near where McCarthy was raised in California's Central Valley, provides an evocative setting for him to try to lead more substantively on the global stage.
“He's grown up with Reagan Library,” Gingrich said. “It communicates strength, optimism, deep patriotism and principles that worked.”
Associated Press writer Huizhong Wu contributed from Taipei.