Tsai talks in US – behind closed doors

As Beijing keeps a watchful eye, Taiwan’s leader delivers a speech in the US to a private audience.
Alex Willemyns for RFA
2023.03.30
Washington
Tsai talks in US – behind closed doors Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen [second from left] attends an event at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York, Thursday, March 30, 2023.
Associated Press

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has wasted little time since touching down in New York on Wednesday, delivering one speech shortly after her arrival with a second set for Thursday night.

But it’s been hard to nail down the details. 

The controversial “transit” through America’s biggest city – en route, apparently, to official visits in Taiwanese allies Guatemala and Belize – is in part taking place behind closed doors, with press not invited.

“They are very serious about keeping this a private event,” said Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute, which is hosting Tsai’s speech at the Intercontinental Hotel.

Taiwanese officials, Cronin told Radio Free Asia, did not want to create “unnecessary pressure and dissent” with a public speech, with Tsai also set to be presented with a global leadership award.

“TECRO set the rules,” he said, referring to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, Taiwan’s de facto embassy. “It’s not Hudson setting the rules,” he said, but “the Taiwan government.”

Careful diplomacy

Tsai appears to be walking a fine line, advocating Taiwan’s case against Beijing during her trip while avoiding prodding it too much. Chinese officials have already warned of “countermeasures” after the visit, and even of a “serious, serious, serious confrontation.”

Each of Tsai’s previous six “transits” through the United States – one in 2016, two in 2017, another in 2018, and two in 2019 – attracted far less attention, coming at times of relative calm in U.S.-China relations.

Dennis Wilder, research fellow with the U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University and a former CIA deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific, told RFA on Tuesday that the “kind of events” Tsai holds this time would shape Beijing’s reaction.

“For example,” Wilder said, “if she were to give speeches where there would be live coverage of the speech, that would be a new kind of step; were she to give speeches that were incendiary in some way from Beijing's point of view … we could see a harsh reaction.”

The few snippets of Tsai’s visit that has taken place in the public eye so far have largely been tame, avoiding Taiwanese independence and other themes that could complicate U.S.-China relations.

In an earlier speech to supporters after arriving Wednesday, Tsai thanked the United States for its support and vowed to continue working with Taiwan’s partners in the face of threats from Beijing.

“At this juncture, our partnerships with the United States and other democracies are more critical than ever,” Tsai said in the speech. “We know that we are stronger when we stand together in solidarity with fellow democracies. Taiwan cannot be isolated.”

Thawing relations

Her trip comes at a fraught time for ties between Washington and Beijing, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceling a trip to Beijing at the last minute on Feb. 4 after an alleged Chinese spy balloon was discovered floating across the United States.

However, U.S. officials insist the trip was only “postponed,” and there are already signs Beijing and Washington are seeking a new date.

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Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen departs the Lotte Hotel in Manhattan in New York, Thursday, March 30, 2023. (Reuters)

Rick Waters, deputy assistant secretary of state for China and Taiwan and the head of the State Department’s “China House,” last week paid a visit to China, meeting Chinese counterparts in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, department spokesman Vedant Patel said on Tuesday.

“It was a working-level discussion,” Patel said, “about a wide range of issues that we have as it relates to our bilateral relationship.”

Such a thawing gives U.S. officials reason to avoid an incident.

In a call with reporters about Tsai’s trip on Thursday morning, Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said U.S. officials had offered guidance to their Taiwanese counterparts about Tsai’s “transit” through the United States.

But he declined to say if they had advised against public speeches.

“We are committed to making sure that President Tsai's seventh transit of the United States is conducted smoothly and successfully, and we have worked closely with many of our Taiwan friends and counterparts to ensure that that is the case,” Kritenbrink said.

“If you have any questions on the specifics of any event that will take place during President Tsai's transits,” he said, “I would refer you to the Taiwan authorities and to those associated with the event itself.”

Cutting room floor

Even with the private nature of Tsai’s speeches, attacks from Chinese officials about the visit have continued since her arrival.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters at a press briefing in Beijing on Thursday that the trip “gravely undermines China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and sends a seriously wrong message to ‘Taiwan independence’ separatists.” 

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Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning [shown in this file photo] said Thursday that Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s trip “sends a seriously wrong message to ‘Taiwan independence’ separatists.” (Reuters)

“This once again shows that the fundamental cause of the new round of tensions in the Taiwan Strait is the Taiwan authorities’ repeated attempt to solicit U.S. support for Taiwan independence and the fact that some in the U.S. intend to use Taiwan to contain China,” Mao said. 

“The Taiwan question is the very core of China’s core interests,” she added, “the bedrock of the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and the first red line that must not be crossed in the relationship.”

Xu Xueyuan, charge d’affaires at the Chinese embassy in Washington, also reportedly said Tsai’s visit could cause a “serious confrontation.” 

“The so-called 'transit' is merely a disguise to her true intention of seeking breakthrough and advocating Taiwan independence,” Xu was quoted as saying by Axios. Tsai’s trip, he added, “could lead to serious, serious, serious confrontation in the U.S.-China relationship.”

Return ticket

The worst from Beijing may be yet to come.

Tsai departs New York for Guatemala at 11 a.m. on Friday and returns Tuesday to Los Angeles, where she’s set to deliver another speech and meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in an echo of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the self-governing island last year.

That meeting will be seen as a “provocation” by the United States, Zhu Fenglian, a spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of China’s State Council said this week, when she threatened “countermeasures.”

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