Taiwan leader’s visit lays bare US-China schism

Tsai may count her US trip as a success, but it underscored fissures in decades of careful diplomacy over Taiwan.
Alex Willemyns for RFA
Taiwan leader’s visit lays bare US-China schism Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen attends an event with members of the Taiwanese community, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., in this handout picture released on April 6, 2023.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen departed the United States on Thursday after an eventful trip that appeared to shore up her island’s relationship with Washington but prompted threats of a “confrontation” from Beijing.

But she arrives home just in time to meet another U.S. congressional delegation – this time, led by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Michael McCaul, who on Wednesday night landed in Taipei and compared Chinese President Xi Jinping to Adolf Hitler.

“This struggle for global power, the balance of power that we find ourselves in today often reminds me of my father’s generation, often referred to as the greatest in the United States,” McCaul, a Republican from Texas, said at a meeting with Tsai’s vice-president, Lai Ching-te.

“Then we had Hitler and today we have Putin and Chairman Xi,” he said, also referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the United States House of Representatives is welcomed by Taiwan's deputy foreign minister Tah-ray Yui upon arrival in Taipei, Taiwan, Thursday, April 6, 2023. (Taiwan Presidential Office/Handout via AP)

Tsai is scheduled to meet with McCaul and his bipartisan delegation on Saturday – her third such meeting in little over a week, following talks with a cross-party group led by Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries last Thursday in New York and her high-profile meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin then arrives in Taiwan on April 24 for a six-day trade mission, which also includes a meeting with Tsai.

The trips are set to further anger Beijing, which considers the self-governing island a province and has vowed to “reunite” it with the mainland, by force if necessary. In August, it cut off all cooperation with Washington after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit.

Blockade soft-launch

Tsai will likely consider her trip to the United States a success, said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, even if it means the U.S.-China relationship is now “dangerously fraught.”

“U.S.-Taiwan relations are stronger than ever. Support for Taiwan in the U.S. Congress is at an all-time high,” Glaser said. “For these reasons, President Tsai is likely to see the transit as a success.” 

Yet the “mistrust is deep” between Beijing and Washington, she noted, and it was not helped by Tsai’s “warm reception” in America. “Not only is a thaw unlikely but the risk of conflict is growing,” she said.

Efforts to repair U.S.-China ties have fizzled since Pelosi’s trip.

Hours before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to leave Washington for a visit to Beijing in February, he called off the trip after an alleged Chinese spying balloon was found in U.S. airspace. 

Then in the week before Tsai’s March 29 arrival in New York, Rick Waters – deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state for China and Taiwan and the head of the State Department’s “China House” – met Chinese officials in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing to rekindle talks.

But Tsai’s trip seems to have again nixed a detente.

As the Taiwanese leader met McCarthy, China’s navy launched aircraft carriers into the Western Pacific just south of Taiwan, with Beijing accusing the United States of “crossing the line” with Tsai’s trip.

A Taiwanese sailor monitors China’s Shandong aircraft carrier east of Taiwan, Wednesday, April 5, 2023. (Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence/AFP)

In an apparent trial of a blockade of the island – which some U.S. military planners consider Beijing’s most likely first-move in a conflict – Chinese officials also announced they will for the next three weeks stop and board ships in the Taiwan Strait for “on-site inspections.” 

Taiwan, in turn, instructed any ships to refuse to cooperate.

European oversight

There’s one saving grace for cross-strait peace.

While McCaul and other American lawmakers are in Taiwan, China has its own visitors: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanual Macron arrived in Beijing and on Thursday met with Xi as Tsai was preparing to fly home.

China’s President Xi Jinping and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron arrive for the official welcoming ceremony in Beijing on Thursday, April 6, 2023. (AFP)

Amid such a visit, “it would not be in Beijing’s strategic interest to use egregiously escalatory military action,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer at the Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies program.

“If Beijing seriously raises military tension at this juncture,” Sung said, “it would make life very difficult for Von der Leyen and Macron, and take the wind out of the sails of European China dove voices.”

“Europe would rather not see the Taiwan Strait situation escalate, for they are already busy with Ukraine and post-COVID economic recovery,” he added, explaining that McCarthy and Tsai seemed to have read the room by shifting their meeting away from Taiwan.

“In other words, Taiwan and the U.S. are already choosing the relatively less provocative option,” he said. “If in response, Beijing still chooses to retaliate … then the U.S. and Taiwan will paint a picture of insatiable Beijing that no one can work with.”

There’s also the recent mirror-image visit by Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, to mainland China while Tsai was in the United States.

Ma’s Kuomintang party, which campaigns its greater willingness to cooperate with Beijing in pursuit of peace than Tsai’s party, hopes to win back the presidency in the January 2024 election, with Lai, the vice-president, expected to carry the baton for the ruling party.

“If Beijing escalates militarily, it will waste away this rare opportunity to underscore cross-strait friendship, in exchange for chipping away the success of President Tsai’s U.S. trip ever so slightly,” Sung said. 

One country, two systems

In the long-term, Tsai’s trip has laid bare a gulf between Beijing, on the one hand, and the United States and Taiwan, on the other.

Ja Ian Chong, a professor of international relations and expert in Chinese foreign policy at the National University of Singapore, said the Taiwanese appetite for a rapprochement with Beijing was fading.

In Taiwan, he said, “efforts to cast Tsai’s U.S. visits as unnecessarily risky by the opposition Kuomintang also do not seem to have gained much traction.” That failure, Chong added, was largely “in keeping with a broad popular acceptance in Taiwan of the current direction of travel in relations between Taipei and Washington.”

Supporters of Taiwan gather outside the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library where Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., met in Simi Valley, Calif., on Wednesday, April 5, 2023. (Associated Press)

Beijing, meanwhile, has not minced its own words. Xi himself pledged in October never to renounce the use of force on Taiwan, and U.S. military leaders have predicted an invasion by the decade’s close.

“We will not allow any foreign force to bully, suppress or enslave us,” Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokesperson, said after Pelosi’s trip last year. “Whoever wants to do so will be on a collision course with the Great Wall of steel forged by the 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

Along with the ever closer ties between the U.S. Congress and Taiwan’s leaders, that’s all a problem for America’s “One China” policy, which holds that the island should govern itself while a peaceful reunification with mainland China is negotiated with Beijing.

The idea is for the United States “to kick the can down the road” until one day “the people of Taiwan would actually endorse some sort of arrangement that would unify China,” said Dennis Wilder, a former CIA deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific.

But that seems increasingly unviable.

“One of the very clear messages you get when you go to Taiwan these days is that they do not accept ‘One country, two systems,’” Wilder said. “They've seen the way Beijing behaved with Hong Kong – they think that Beijing betrayed the people of Hong Kong.”

“At this point, they want no part of any kind of arrangement where Beijing makes promises that they don't believe they would keep,” he added. “The big concern I have is: Will Beijing lose its patience?”

Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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