Tsai Ing-wen’s Transit through US Ignores Risks to Taiwan Strait

By Pan Hsi-tang, professor of cross-strait relations and international relations, Fu Jen Catholic University, and vice chair of the Strait Academic and Cultural Exchange Association, Taiwan

There have been reports that on her trip to Belize and Guatemala at the end of March, Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen will transit through the United States, where she will deliver a speech and meet with Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy. However, given current relations between the U.S. and China, the situation in the Taiwan Strait, and the fact that there is only one year left to Tsai’s term of office, there is really no reason why Taiwan should be plunged into another crisis on account of her overengineering her passage through the U.S. With the Democratic Progressive Party’s exclusive focus on electoral interests, its attempts to provoke the mainland so as to boost support for Taiwanese independence on the island — causing an uncontrollable crisis to erupt in the Taiwan Strait — is definitely not something the people of Taiwan would be happy to see.

After Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year, China’s military exercises against Taiwan put serious pressure on the stability of the Taiwan Strait and on China-U.S. relations. If McCarthy were to do the same this year, the scale of the impact would be at least as big as last year, if not bigger. However, Tsai is not about to relinquish attempts to shore up her popularity, and McCarthy does not want to be seen as a soft touch with regard to the mainland, hence the arrangement to meet in California on Tsai’s transit through U.S.

In fact, as early as Feb. 21 this year, high-level security talks were held between Taiwan and the U.S. at the American Institute in Taiwan, during which related issues were discussed. It may be said that Tsai’s trip conceals ulterior motives, as it seems aimed at testing the limits of the mainland’s patience, but in fact her goal more likely is to visit the U.S. before she leaves office in an effort to cement her place in history. But since Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August, fierce countermeasures from the mainland along with a tougher stance toward Taiwan have already had a certain effect. For McCarthy, meeting Tsai first in the U.S. naturally allows him to cover his bases, be they offensive or defensive.

Tsai will stop by in the U.S. to meet with McCarthy, and while the situation appears calm on the surface, it is somewhat more turbulent beneath — especially given that the confrontation between China and the U.S. has become more serious since the beginning of the year. Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price has not commented on the meeting between Tsai and McCarthy in California, stressing instead that the bigger concern of the U.S. is the so-called ongoing “attempt [by the PRC] to undermine the status quo of peace and security across the Taiwan Strait”, and especially the false claim by the mainland that “[Pelosi’s] visit was a change to the status quo.”

However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has responded that China has “serious concerns about Tsai’s plans to transit through the U.S.” and has made stern representations to the U.S., stressing that China is firmly opposed to any form of official exchange between the U.S. and Taiwan. Earlier, Chinese President Xi Jinping had publicly criticized U.S.-led Western countries for their “wholesale containment and suppression of China,” while new Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang stressed in a press conference that Taiwan was part of China’s sacred territory. He even repeatedly criticized the U.S. for interfering in China’s internal affairs, his harsh statement, that “If the Taiwan issue is not handled properly, the relationship between China and the U.S. will be shaken to the core,” particularly drawing a line in the sand with regard to this stage of China-U.S. relations.

Furthermore, both the U.S. political establishment and the media see China as a hostile challenger, and while the Joe Biden administration has let it be known verbally that it would not want to engage in a cold war or conflict with China, the strategic encirclement of China is becoming increasingly apparent. Therefore, Tsai’s U.S. stopover at the end of this month may be seen as a litmus test for whether China-U.S. relations will continue to deteriorate. For now, she is scheduled to stop in New York on her outbound trip and to meet with McCarthy in Los Angeles on her return trip. The fact that McCarthy will not be visiting Taiwan this year is within the American purview, but his meeting Tsai in his California constituency will still deepen the confrontation between China and the U.S.

Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy in the U.S. could be seen as a compromise and adjustment to the current critical developments. However, for the Tsai administration to labor under the belief that the situation in the Taiwan Strait can be stabilized through a few technical maneuvers is to be blind to the facts of reality and be engaging in wishful thinking. In fact, rather than enhancing relations with the U.S. and being on guard against the mainland’s pressure on Taiwan, the Tsai administration should be taking the initiative to improve cross-strait relations and be willing to agree on and accept the cross-strait position that “both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one China.” In this way, favorable channels for mutual trust and communication between the two sides can be established, and Taiwan will be able to develop good relations with both the U.S. and the mainland, while at the same time attending to its own security, well-being, rights, and interests.

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About Matthew McKay 75 Articles
A British citizen and raised in Switzerland, Matthew received his honors degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford, and went on to earn his MA in Chinese Languages, Literature and Civilization at the University of Geneva, after 15 years in the private sector. Matthew is an associate of the Chartered Institute of Linguists and the Institute for Translation and Interpreting in the UK, and of the Association of Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters in Switzerland. Apart from Switzerland, he has lived in the UK, Taiwan and Germany, and his interests include literary translation, language teaching, and sampling cuisine from around the world.

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