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Taiwan’s president begins transit visit to US, amid China’s warning

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen visits a military base in Chiayi, Chinese Taipei, March 25, 2023. (Photo by Reuters)

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen has arrived in New York on a sensitive transit trip to the United States, as China has threatened to “resolutely fight back” if she meets House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

The Taiwanese president left Taipei on Wednesday afternoon for a 10-day trip to visit Central American allies, Belize and Guatemala, and which also includes two stopovers in New York and Los Angeles. Tsai is expected to meet with McCarthy in California, but there hasn’t been official confirmation.

Just hours before Tsai was due to leave Taipei, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office issued a warning against the trip.

“If she contacts US House speaker McCarthy, it will be another provocation that seriously violates the one-China principle, harms China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and destroys peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” Zhu Fenglian, the office’s spokesperson told a news conference.

In response, shortly before her departure on Wednesday, Tsai told media that the self-goverened island would not bow to external pressure. “When the international community needs Taiwan, Taiwan will contribute. And if Taiwan encounters difficulties, partners will also support Taiwan,” she said.

Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he hoped that any unofficial meeting with the Taiwanese leader would send the message that American support for Taiwan is “strong and unequivocal.”

China has sovereignty over Taiwan. The US does not recognize Taiwan as a country and officially supports the 'One China' policy but regularly oversteps its own principles. The island has become China's most sensitive territorial issue and a major bone of contention with Washington.

Washington continues to antagonize Beijing by siding with Taipei's secessionist administration, engaging in frequent military missions around the island, and serving as its largest weapons supplier. 

China has repeatedly warned US officials not to meet Tsai, viewing it as support for Taiwan's desire to be seen as a sovereign island.

In August last year, in response to a visit to Taipei by then US House speaker Nancy Pelosi, China’s army surrounded Taiwan’s main island with days of live-fire drills, summoned the US ambassador and halted some imports from the island in a display of anger against her visit.

Pelosi’s successor, Republican McCarthy, had said he would like to visit Taiwan, but a meeting with Tsai in California has been interpreted by observers as an attempt to avoid a repeat of the Pelosi visit.

The Biden administration has tried to play down the visit, noting that Tsai has held meetings with members of Congress during previous transits. Tsai has made six trips through the US during her presidency, meeting with members of Congress and members of the Taiwanese Diaspora.

“So there’s absolutely no reason for Beijing to use this upcoming transit as an excuse or a pretext to carry out aggressive or coercive activities aimed at Taiwan,” a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday night on the condition of anonymity.

Tsai will head to Belize and Guatemala to try to shore up diplomatic relations with them. Five of the nine countries that have switched allegiances since Tsai took office in 2016 have been in Central America, including Nicaragua, Panama, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and recently Honduras.

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