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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy welcomes Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen as she arrives at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on April 5.Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press

U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy met Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in California on Wednesday, becoming the most senior U.S. figure to meet a Taiwanese leader on U.S. soil since 1979 despite threats of retaliation from China, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as its own.

McCarthy, a Republican who through his House position is number three in the U.S. leadership hierarchy, welcomed Tsai on Wednesday morning at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, near Los Angeles.

At the start of a meeting including other Republican and Democratic lawmakers, McCarthy called Tsai “a great friend to America” and added: “I am optimistic we will continue to find ways for the people of America and Taiwan to work together to promote economic freedom, democracy, peace and stability.”

Tsai thanked McCarthy for his hospitality, calling it warm, like the California sunshine, and also thanked the rest of the congressional delegation, saying: “I am so pleased.”

China staged war games around Taiwan last August following the visit to Taipei of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Taiwan’s defense ministry said a Chinese aircraft carrier group was in the waters off the island’s southeast coast ahead of the meeting between Tsai and McCarthy in California.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said there was nothing new about a Taiwanese president transiting through the U.S. and Beijing should not use it as an excuse to take action or ratchet up tensions.

Supporters waving Taiwan flags and pro-Taiwan and Hong Kong banners chanted “Jiayou Taiwan” – the equivalent of “Go Taiwan” – in the Reagan Library parking lot ahead of Tsai and McCarthy’s arrival for the highest-level meeting for a Taiwanese president on U.S. soil since Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

After McCarthy and Tsai went inside, a small plane flew over the library towing a pro-Beijing banner saying “One China! Taiwan is part of China!”

The meeting is sure to draw a strong reaction from Beijing, which considers Taiwan part of its territory and has vowed to bring it under its control, by force if necessary.

China has repeatedly warned against a meeting between McCarthy and Tsai, who is on her first U.S. stopover since 2019, although some analysts expect its reaction to be more moderate than that to Pelosi’s Taipei visit.

A meeting in California is seen as a potentially less provocative alternative to McCarthy visiting Taiwan, something he has said he hopes to do.

Taiwan’s defense ministry said the Chinese carrier group was headed for training in the Western Pacific and that Taiwanese naval and air forces and land-based radar systems closely monitored them.

It said the ships, led by the carrier Shandong, passed through the Bashi Channel separating Taiwan from the Philippines and then into waters to Taiwan’s southeast.

China has sailed its aircraft carriers near Taiwan before and at similarly sensitive times. It has yet to comment on the carrier group, whose appearance also coincided with the arrival in Beijing of French President Emmanuel Macron.

In March of last year, the Shandong sailed through the Taiwan Strait just hours before the Chinese and U.S. presidents were due to talk.

Tsai transited through New York last week en route to Central America to visit two of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic partners, Guatemala and Belize.

Washington called on China not to overreact, portraying Tsai’s stopovers as routine and a normal part of its unofficial relationship with Taiwan.

However, the U.S., which is bound by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, has stepped up interactions with Taipei in recent years as Beijing’s pressure on the island has increased.

At a news conference in Brussels, Blinken said there was nothing new in Tsai’s transit through the U.S. and said such stops were “private” and “unofficial.”

“Beijing should not use the transit as an excuse to take any actions to ratchet up tensions, to further push it changing the status quo,” he said.

Xu Xueyuan, charge d’affaires at China’s Washington embassy, said last week that McCarthy meeting Tsai “could lead to another serious confrontation in the China-U.S. relationship.” On Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry said it would “closely monitor” the meeting and “resolutely defend” Chinese sovereignty.

Since Pelosi’s visit, U.S.-Chinese relations have deteriorated to what some say is their worst level since 1979.

February saw the dramatic shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon that drifted over U.S. territory, and fears have only grown that Beijing may eventually be emboldened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to move militarily against Taiwan.

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