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Civics & Democracy

Taiwan's President Arrives In the U.S. Amid Warnings From China

An Asian woman who appears to be in her mid-60s wears a black jacket and a light shirt as she arrives at an airport gate. She is looking off to the left with a courteous grin as she acknowledges people around her.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen arrives at the boarding gate of the international airport in Taoyuan on March 29, 2023.
(Sam Yeh
AFP via Getty Images)
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Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, is in the United States as part of a multi-day itinerary that will take the leader of the Asian democratic island through Central and North America, a trip that China is closely watching.

"External pressure will not hinder our determination to go to the world. We are calm and confident, will neither yield nor provoke," Tsai told reporters on Tuesday right before departing from Taipei.

Her carefully choreographed trip comes at a tense moment for Taiwan. Last week, Honduras, once one of the few remaining countries which formally recognized Taiwan's government, formally switched ties to Beijing. Tsai next heads to Belize and Guatemala, both of which still have formal ties with Taipei.

On the way back to Taiwan next week, Tsai is set to stop in Los Angeles and meet House Speaker Kevin McCarthy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

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Beijing, which considers Taiwan part of its territory and opposes interactions between Taiwan and other state officials, has already signaled its unhappiness.

If Tsai meets McCarthy, China would consider that "another provocation that seriously violates the one-China principle, harms China's sovereignty and territorial integrity," a spokesperson for China's Taiwan Affairs Office, Zhu Fenglian, told reporters this week.

China, Zhu added, "firmly opposes this and will definitely take measures to resolutely fight back."

China has not specified how it intends to retaliate, but last summer, after former speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, Beijing staged unprecedented military drills around the island and cut off dialogue with the U.S. across a range of policy topics, including environmental dialogue and cooperation on cracking down on fentanyl trafficking.

"It feels like everybody realizes we got really close to something really bad. We need to be more cautious," says Shelley Rigger, a Taiwan expert and professor of Asian studies at Davidson College.

McCarthy originally expressed interest in visiting Tsai in Taipei, but moving that meeting to California was a compromise, given the political risks to Taiwan, says Rigger: "[Tsai] is trying to keep McCarthy in North America, and that is a big concession."

Both Taipei and Washington are treading a careful line with Tsai's current trip. Tsai's U.S. stops are not being called visits. Tsai's office has stressed she is stopping in the U.S. as a private individual, and American officials are calling them transits, albeit ones that will last several days.

These stops are not new, however. Tsai has visited the U.S. nearly every year as president (with a three-year pause during the global coronavirus pandemic), despite Beijing's efforts to limit Taiwan's space on the international stage.

Tsai's dates in the U.S. align with a trip to China by former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeoh, who is currently touring the mainland for the first time, on a trip billed as a cultural and academic exchange. Ma's foundation said that the timing of his trip was not planned to coincide with Tsai's, but it has in practice acted as a political counterweight to Tsai's stops in the U.S.

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"People on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are Chinese people," Ma told reporters this week, using wording to denote Chinese ethnicity, not nationality.

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