The US State Department signalled Wednesday it would let Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen visit California to meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, downplaying the significance of the event in the face of protests by China.

McCarthy confirmed Tuesday that he would see Tsai in his home state, sidestepping a potential visit by the top Republican to Taiwan that policymakers there feared could provoke a military response from Beijing.

Kevin McCarthy
US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Photo: Wikicommons.

State Department spokesman Ned Price described Tsai’s expected travel as “transit” rather than a “visit” to the United States, which supports but does not recognize the self-ruling democracy claimed by Beijing.

“Transits of the United States by high-level Taiwan officials are consistent with longstanding US policy and with our unofficial and strong relations with Taiwan,” Price told reporters.

“That is nothing new. It is not something that would break any new ground. It is entirely consistent with the status quo,” Price said.

He said that Tsai has already transited through the United States six times since she was inaugurated in 2016.

But those trips were largely on the way to or from Taiwan’s dwindling number of allies in Latin America, not for high-profile talks in the United States.

In 1996, the State Department, under pressure from Congress, let Taiwan’s then president Lee Teng-hui visit his alma mater Cornell University in New York, setting off a crisis in which China fired missiles into waters near the island.

China took similar action in August after a visit to Taiwan by McCarthy’s predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, in what some experts saw as a rehearsal for an invasion by a now more powerful Beijing.

China said that it was “gravely concerned” by news of Tsai and McCarthy meeting and “firmly opposes” any official contact between the United States and Taiwan.

Tsai Ing-wen
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. File photo: Taiwan Gov’t.

“I want to stress that China… firmly opposes the ringleaders of the Taiwan independence separatists scurrying off to the United States in any name and under any pretext,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning.

On Thursday, Taiwan’s foreign ministry said China had “no right to point fingers” at the island’s diplomatic exchanges.

“President Tsai is the head of state of the Republic of China,” said Douglas Hsu, a Taiwanese foreign ministry official, using the official name Taiwan uses to describe itself.

“Such a malicious slander is unacceptable. China’s remarks disregard the facts and are undignified.”

McCarthy insisted that meeting Tsai in California would not preclude a trip later to Taiwan, which enjoys wide bipartisan support in the US Congress.

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