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Taiwan’s President to transit US on Central America trip, but no word on meeting with Speaker McCarthy

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Taiwan confirmed Tuesday that President Tsai Ing-wen will transit the United States en route to Central America at the end of the month, but there was no word on whether a highly anticipated meeting with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will take place.

Tsai will head to New York on March 29 before visiting Guatemala and Belize, presidential spokeswoman Lin Yu-chan told reporters. She will then stop in California before returning to Taiwan.

When asked whether Tsai will meet with McCarthy, as has been widely reported in recent weeks, the presidential office refused to provide any details of her itinerary in the US.

McCarthy told reporters earlier this month that he’ll meet with Tsai when she is in the US but didn’t specify a date. He also did not rule out the possibility of taking a trip to Taiwan himself in addition to their meeting.

Any face to face meeting between McCarthy and Tsai is likely to infuriate China’s ruling Communist Party, which claims democratic Taiwan as its own territory despite never having controlled it.

China launched massive war drills near Taiwan last summer, including firing multiple missiles over the island, when McCarthy’s predecessor Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei – the first such trip by a sitting House speaker in 25 years.

China hit out at initial reports of Tsai’s planned US transit emerged earlier this month with its Foreign Ministry declaring it was “seriously concerned” about the prospect of a meeting with McCarthy and repeating its position that Beijing “resolutely opposes all official exchanges between US and Taiwan.”

On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin repeated that criticism, saying Beijing was opposed to the visit “in any name for any reason” and accusing Tsai of “promoting Taiwan independence” with the trip.

Because of the unofficial relationship the US has with Taiwan, Tsai’s stop in the US is not characterized as an official visit in order to keep US within the longstanding “One China” policy.

Under the “One China” policy, the US acknowledges China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never officially recognized Beijing’s claim to the self-governing island of some 23 million.

Taiwan’s refusal to confirm details of a potential McCarthy meeting in advance is not surprising given the geopolitical sensitivities.

Pelosi’s visit to Taipei last year was only officially made public once her plane landed, although it was reported by Western media ahead of time.

Handful of diplomatic allies

Guatemala and Belize are two of Taiwan’s few remaining official diplomatic allies.

Last Tuesday, Honduras President Xiomara Castro said she planned to switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing.

That move would leave Taiwan with just 13 official diplomatic allies, mostly small nations in Latin American and the Pacific.

However, Taiwan has de-facto, but non-official, diplomatic relations with many Western nations including the United States.

During her trip to Taipei last year, Pelosi, a California Democrat, said the visit intended to make it “unequivocally clear” the US would “not abandon” the democratically governed island.

Taiwanese leaders, including Tsai, have previously transited through the US on their way to other places.

Tsai most recently visited the US in July 2019 when she stopped over in New York before heading to Haiti, a diplomatic ally of Taiwan.

US officials have engaged in multiple communications with Chinese officials in recent weeks to remind them of past precedents regarding US transits of Taiwanese presidents, a senior administration official told reporters.

The official noted that that any transit to the US of Tsai should not be used by China as a pretext for an aggressive response.

Tsai’s planned trip comes as Taiwan and the United States ramp up efforts to counter China’s growing military capabilities.

It also coincides with former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s visit to mainland China, the first such trip by a former Taiwanese leader since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.

Ma served as Taiwan’s president between 2008 and 2016, during which he drew stronger economic ties between China and Taiwan but kept Beijing’s push for “reunification” at bay.

The two trips are taking place at a politically sensitive time.

Taiwan is scheduled to hold its next presidential election in January next year. Tsai is not eligible for re-election.

Fears of a potential Chinese invasion, which have loomed over Taiwan for more than seven decades, are particularly high, supercharged by both Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s increased assertiveness and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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