China Warns Taiwan Leader to Avoid McCarthy as She Visits US

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(Bloomberg) -- China warned the US and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen that any meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy would be a serious provocation, raising the stakes for her trip to the US.

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Tsai left Taipei on Wednesday bound for New York on a plane that was guarded by F-16 fighters as it headed over the Pacific. She’ll later visit two Central American allies, and on the way home she’s planning to stop in Los Angeles, where she’s expected to meet with McCarthy.

“We resolutely oppose this and will definitely take measures to respond,” Zhu Fenglian, spokeswoman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said at a regular press briefing in Beijing, when asked about the potential meeting. She gave no further details.

“If she meets with McCarthy, it will be another provocation that severely violates the one-China principle, damages China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and sabotages peace and stability of Taiwan Strait,” Zhu said.

Just before she boarded her flight, Tsai said that “pressure won’t stop us.” “We won’t give in and won’t be provocative,” she said.

Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August last year to Taipei prompted China to respond with unprecedented military exercises simulating a naval blockade of the island — an event that could someday serve as a prelude to an actual invasion.

Taiwan leaders have routinely transited through the US over the years, with Tsai herself making six previous stops. Her last such transit through Denver in 2019 elicited complaints from Chinese state media that the the US “risks damaging the most important bilateral relationship in the world.”

Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year, coupled with rising tensions between the US and China over everything from Russia’s war in Ukraine to advanced technology, make this trip more sensitive. Ahead of Tsai’s visit, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi on Friday in a call that neither side publicized, people familiar with the matter said.

See: Biden Aide Speaks With China Counterpart as Tension Spikes

US-China ties plummeted in February when the US shot down a Chinese balloon it said was spying, prompting Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a trip to the Asian nation. China has since rebuffed US efforts to set up a phone call between President Joe Biden and counterpart Xi Jinping, which would be their first conversation since they met in November and pledged to steady the relationship.

China’s reaction will also likely be influenced by an upcoming presidential election in Taiwan. Tsai’s pro-independence ruling party has tended to benefit whenever Beijing reacts aggressively toward her government.

“Beijing will be watching quite closely and will calibrate their response accordingly,” said Amanda Hsiao, a senior analyst at Crisis Group in Taiwan. “It’s not to say that Beijing won’t respond harshly. I think that depends on how that trip is managed.”

Tsai is unlikely to use this moment to “push boundaries,” Hsiao said, partly to avoid “accusations of being provocative by Taiwanese voters.”

Taiwan hasn’t released details of Tsai’s itinerary while in the US. The Financial Times reported that Tsai may speak at an event on Thursday organized by the conservative Hudson Institute.

Any Tsai meeting with McCarthy “puts the ball in Beijing’s court,” according to Ja Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

“Beijing has to decide how strongly it wants to respond,” he said. “Too weak a reaction may seem like acceptance. Too strong a response may appear to be an overreaction.”

(Updates with remarks from Tsai Ing-wen.)

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