Taiwan will not let external pressure prevent it engaging with the world, President Tsai Ing-wen said on Wednesday as she headed for the United States after China threatened retaliation if she met U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
China, which claims democratically-ruled Taiwan as its own territory, has repeatedly warned U.S. officials not to meet Tsai, seeing it as showing support for the island’s desire to be seen as a separate country.
China staged major war games around Taiwan in August when then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei. Taiwan’s armed forces say they are watching for any Chinese moves when Tsai is abroad.
Tsai is travelling to Guatemala and Belize, stopping in New York on Wednesday and Los Angeles on her return. She is expected to meet McCarthy in California, although this is not officially confirmed.
“External pressure will not hinder our determination to go to the world,” Tsai said at Taiwan’s main international airport at Taoyuan, ahead of her New York stop later on Wednesday.
“We are calm and confident, will neither yield nor provoke. Taiwan will firmly walk on the road of freedom and democracy and go into the world. Although this road is rough, Taiwan is not alone,” Tsai said.
Taiwan has gradually lost official recognition from more countries as they switch to Beijing. Honduras shifted loyalty on Sunday, leaving just 13 with formal ties with Taiwan. Beijing says Taiwan belongs to “one China” and, as a Chinese province, has no right to state-to-state ties. Taiwan disputes this.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Zhu Fenglian said Tsai’s U.S. transit stops would include meeting U.S. officials and lawmakers.
“If she has contact with U.S. 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,” she said in Beijing before Tsai left.
“We firmly oppose this and will definitely take measures to resolutely fight back,” Zhu added, without giving details.
The U.S. transit will be Tsai’s first since 2019 and her seventh since taking office in 2016.
A meeting with McCarthy would be the first between a Taiwanese leader and a U.S. House Speaker on U.S. soil, although it is seen as a potentially less provocative alternative to McCarthy visiting Taiwan, something he has said he hopes to do.
Two sources told Reuters that as many as 20 or more U.S. lawmakers planned to accompany McCarthy for his meeting with Tsai, originally set for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Los Angeles. The library has yet to confirm the meeting.
Two other sources said Tsai would attend a banquet with Taiwanese Americans and overseas Taiwanese in New York, as well as an event on Thursday with the Hudson Institute think tank.
U.S. officials said Tsai would meet Laura Rosenberger, chair at the Washington headquarters of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), a U.S. government-run, non-profit organization that carries out unofficial relations with Taiwan.
Rosenberger, who took up the post last week, was previously a senior official for China and Taiwan on President Joe Biden’s National Security Council.
Tsai’s transit comes when U.S. relations with China are at what some analysts see as their worst level since Washington normalized ties with Beijing in 1979 and switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei.
Taiwan is China’s most sensitive territorial issue and a major bone of contention with Washington, which, like most countries, maintains only unofficial ties with Taipei. But the U.S. government is required by U.S. law to provide the island with the means to defend itself.
The United States says transits by Taiwanese presidents are routine and China should not use Tsai’s trip as an excuse to further pressure Taiwan.
“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 U.S. official said before Tsai began her trip.
Beijing had stepped up military, economic and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, the official said, but Washington would not alter its “long-standing practice to facilitate transits through the United States.”
Tsai’s trip has unnerved security agencies in Taiwan, who worry China could launch influence campaigns including spreading misinformation on social media platforms to sway public perceptions of Tsai’s U.S. transit, according to an internal memo by a Taiwan security agency seen by Reuters.
The note said China had used large-scale influence campaigns including cyber attacks against Taiwan during Pelosi’s visit last year, and Taiwan authorities expected Beijing to deepen its “cognitive operations” in the coming days.