WASHINGTON: The moment will be historic - a US House speaker meeting 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 Wednesday (Apr 5) with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California is the most sensitive stop on her transit through the US and Central America, a whirlwind diplomatic mission that is delicate, secretive and politically fraught.
But for the newly elected House speaker it is 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 sends a potentially provocative 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 ... that they have real allies,” Gingrich said. The Taiwanese, he said, will “see it as a morale boost”.
The private meeting between Tsai and McCarthy comes against the very public backdrop of heightened US focus on China over its actions at home and abroad, particularly China's potential aggression in 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 US acknowledges the “One China” policy, it remains Taiwan’s key provider of military and defence assistance.
The session with McCarthy, who as House speaker is second in line of succession to the president, is Tsai's most high-level US visit during her transit, which included a stop in New York last week.
The private event Wednesday, which is expected to include Republican and Democratic lawmakers, has been closely held, a reminder of the pressures on her island government under the watchful eye of China. It would be the first known visit between a House speaker and a Taiwan president on American territory since the US 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 programme 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 US 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”.
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 US 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 US abroad as an earlier generation of lawmakers.
McCarthy barely won his own position as House speaker in January after a gruelling party election that took 15 public ballots to win over his reluctant hard-right colleagues - a sizable faction of sceptics 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 China’s rising influence in the US 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.”