China has threatened to retaliate if Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen meets US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy during an upcoming trip to the US, amid soaring tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Such a meeting would be “another provocation” that would “sabotage peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”, the Chinese government’s Taiwan policy body said, pledging to “resolutely hit back”.
The warning came on Wednesday morning as Tsai was preparing to take off on a 10-day trip during which she is scheduled to meet McCarthy in California.
Her visit is deemed crucial to affirming her country’s ability to engage in foreign relations but comes as Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy stance has curtailed her room to manoeuvre.
“Taiwan’s determination to go out into the world will only grow stronger,” Tsai said on her departure from Taipei. “The message I want to send through this trip is that Taiwan will steadfastly safeguard our freedom and democracy and continue to be a force for good in the international society.”
Tsai will stay for two nights in New York on her way to Guatemala and Belize, two of the remaining 13 countries that recognise Taiwan, and for two nights in Los Angeles on her return.
Tsai, whose final term ends next year, will on Thursday receive the Hudson Institute’s Global Leadership Award, previously given to leaders including US president Ronald Reagan and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.
The two brief US visits have been defined as stopovers, a long-running practice that started as a courtesy for Taiwanese presidents but has expanded in length and scope under Tsai, reflecting Washington’s deepening engagement with Taipei.
China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and threatens to attack it if Taipei refuses to submit under its control indefinitely. Last August, Beijing staged unprecedented military exercises and fired missiles over Taiwan for the first time after then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei.
Pelosi’s successor McCarthy had also pledged to visit Taiwan. But the Financial Times reported this month that he held off after Tsai suggested they meet in the US instead to limit the risk of a belligerent reaction from Beijing.
Ahead of Tsai’s arrival, senior Biden administration officials said transits through the US by top Taiwanese officials were routine and that China should not “use this upcoming transit as an excuse or pretext to carry out aggressive or coercive activities aimed at Taiwan”.
Officials stressed there had been no change to the US’s “one China” policy, under which Washington recognises Beijing as the sole government of China.
Taiwan’s defence ministry said it was prepared for any Chinese threat during Tsai’s trip, including a “worst-case” scenario that it did not define. It added there were no signs of Chinese military moves ahead of her departure.
However, Beijing has stepped up a political pressure campaign against the government of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive party in advance of general elections next January.
On Sunday, Honduras switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. A day later, China welcomed Tsai’s predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, from the opposition Kuomintang, the first-ever sitting or former Taiwanese president to visit the country.
At the memorial hall of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China, which the Kuomintang relocated to Taiwan after its defeat in the Chinese civil war, Ma said all people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait were Chinese — a position the majority of Taiwanese do not share, according to long-running polls.
Invoking words attributed to Sun, Ma said it was the responsibility of Chinese people on both sides to “work together to pursue peace, avoid war and strive to revitalise China”.
Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington