U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy hosted Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in California on Wednesday, becoming the most senior U.S. figure to meet a Taiwanese leader on U.S. soil in decades and stressed the need to speed up arms deliveries to Taiwan in the face of increasing threats from China.
McCarthy – the third highest ranking official in the U.S. leadership hierarchy – and other Republican and Democratic lawmakers met Tsai at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California despite threats of retaliation from China, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as its own.
A China foreign ministry spokesperson quickly denounced the meeting, accusing the United States of colluding with separatists seeking “Taiwan independence” and saying that for a long time it had breaching it commitments over the island.
Tsai thanked the U.S. Congress for standing by Taiwan when democracy was under threat and said she had cited former U.S. President Reagan in telling McCarthy and other Republican and Democratic lawmakers of her belief that “to preserve peace, we must be strong.”
“I would like to add that we are stronger when we are together,” she said standing side-by-side with McCarthy.
The meeting came at a time when U.S.-Chinese relations have deteriorated to what some say is their worst level since Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 and rising concern among Western officials that China could attempt to take Taiwan by force in the coming years.
China has vowed to bring Taiwan under its control, by force if necessary, and staged war games around the island last August following a visit by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
On Wednesday, Taiwan’s defense ministry said a Chinese aircraft carrier group was in the waters off the island’s southeast coast ahead of the meeting between Tsai and McCarthy.
While Washington does not have official relations with Taiwan, it is bound by law to provide the island with the means to defend itself and has stepped up interactions with Taipei in recent years as Beijing’s pressure on the island has increased.
Standing with Tsai in front of a blue-and-white Boeing aircraft that Reagan flew on as president in the 1980s, McCarthy called the friendship between the people of Taiwan and America “a matter of profound importance to the free world.”
Speaking at a later news conference alongside Republican and Democratic lawmakers who took part in the meeting with Tsai, McCarthy said they had discussed how to speed up weapons deliveries to Taiwan.
“We must continue the arms sales to Taiwan and make sure such sales reach Taiwan on a very timely basis,” he said, adding that he believed there was bipartisan agreement on this. “Second, we must strengthen our economic cooperation, particularly with trade and technology.”
Democratic Congressman Pete Aguilar said he looked forward to more such meetings in future, while Republican Mike Gallagher responded to China’s objections saying:
“If the duly elected leader of one of our most important democratic partners can’t meet with American leaders on American soil, then we are merely feeding the crocodile that will eventually eat us.”
Afterwards Gallagher told reporters he would like to look for ways get Harpoon missiles to Taiwan ahead of those scheduled to go to Saudi Arabia.
At a news conference in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there was nothing new in Tsai’s transits and such stops were “private” and “unofficial.”
“Beijing should not use the transit as an excuse to take any actions to ratchet up tensions, to further push it changing the status quo,” he said.
Supporters waving Taiwanese flags and pro-Taiwan and Hong Kong banners chanted “Jiayou Taiwan” – the equivalent of “Go Taiwan” – outside the Reagan Library. A small plane flew overhead towing a pro-Beijing banner saying “One China! Taiwan is part of China!”
China repeatedly warned against the meeting between McCarthy and Tsai, who is on her first U.S. stopover since 2019, although some analysts expect its reaction to be more moderate than that to Pelosi’s Taipei visit.
February saw the dramatic shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon that drifted over U.S. territory and Xu Xueyuan, charge d’affaires at China’s Washington embassy, said last week McCarthy meeting Tsai “could lead to another serious confrontation in the China-U.S. relationship.”
The California meeting was seen as a potentially less provocative alternative to McCarthy visiting Taiwan, something he has said he hopes to do.
McCarthy said he had no current plans to go to Taiwan, but this did not mean he would not, and China could not tell him where he could go or who he could meet.
China has yet to comment on the carrier group, whose appearance also coincided with the arrival in Beijing of French President Emmanuel Macron.
It has sailed its carriers near Taiwan before and at similarly sensitive times. In March last year, the Shandong sailed through the Taiwan Strait hours before the Chinese and U.S. presidents were due to talk.
Tsai transited through New York last week en route to Central America to visit two of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic partners, Guatemala and Belize.