NEW YORK - Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen arrived in New York on a sensitive US stopover on Wednesday, vowing en route not to let external pressure prevent the island from engaging with the world, after China threatened retaliation if she met US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
China, which claims democratically ruled Taiwan as its own territory, has repeatedly warned US officials not to meet Ms Tsai, who is on her first US stopover since 2019, seeing it as showing support for the island’s desire to be seen as a separate country.
Ms Tsai is en route to Guatemala and Belize, two of the few countries that recognise Taiwan diplomatically.
She will stay in New York until Saturday and will also visit Los Angeles on her return from Central America. She is expected to meet Mr McCarthy in California, although this has not been officially confirmed.
“External pressure will not hinder our determination to go to the world,” Ms Tsai said before her departure from Taiwan’s main international airport in Taoyuan.
“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.”
Taiwan’s de facto embassy in the United States confirmed Ms Tsai’s arrival in New York on Wednesday afternoon, and said none of her events were open to the press or the public during her stopover there. Video clips show her being greeted in the city by flag-waving supporters.
Speaking to the Taiwanese community in New York on Wednesday, Ms Tsai reiterated that Taiwan has shown, when faced with difficulties, that it neither provokes nor gives in to pressure, the official Central News Agency reported.
“Taiwan has the ability to maintain regional peace and stability, and moreover, is determined to protect the values we adhere to and the way we live,” she said.
On Thursday, a senior Taiwan security official said the island expects a less severe reaction from China to an expected meeting between Ms Tsai and Mr McCarthy. The island has also not seen any unusual Chinese military movements, said the official.
Speaking in Parliament, Taiwan National Security Bureau director-general Tsai Ming-yen said it expected a less severe reaction to that meeting than when then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came to Taipei in August 2022 and China staged war games around Taiwan after she left.
“We believe that the actions the Chinese communists might take are unlikely to go as far as being as large as when Pelosi visited last August,” said Mr Tsai, who shares a common family name with the President but is not related to her.
“She will be meeting in the United States, so the political complexity is not as high as the Speaker coming to Taiwan.”
Asked whether China could again mass its forces around Taiwan to express its displeasure, Mr Tsai said “there were all sorts of possibilities” including more Chinese combat drills, as this is the season for it to hold exercises.
But Taiwan has been keeping a close watch on China’s military movements, said Mr Tsai, adding: “At present, there is nothing unusual.”
China is also hosting several senior foreign officials and leaders while Ms Tsai is away, meaning the timing would not be right for a strong military reaction against Taiwan, Mr Tsai added.
Taiwan’s Defence Ministry, in its daily update on China’s military activities, said that from Wednesday to Thursday morning, it had not spotted any Chinese aircraft entering Taiwan’s air defence zone or crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which serves as an unofficial barrier.
China’s air force flies almost daily into the air defence zone, or across the median line, in which Taiwan calls “grey zone” warfare designed to test and wear out its forces.
Mr Tsai said the Defence Ministry had been conducting dry runs on what to do to respond to a rise in tensions while the President is away, including when she is flying, and ensuring that she can be reached at any time by top security officials.
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.
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 US government is required by American law to provide the island with the means to defend itself, and it also facilitates unofficial stopover visits.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Zhu Fenglian said in Beijing that if Ms Tsai met Mr McCarthy, China would “definitely take measures to resolutely fight back”.
Ms Xu Xueyuan, charge d’affaires at China’s embassy in Washington, told reporters that such a meeting “could lead to another serious confrontation in the China-US relationship”.
“We have made solemn representations to the US side on many occasions and clearly told them that all consequences should be borne by the US side,” she said.
The US transit is Ms Tsai’s seventh since taking office in 2016 and comes amid concerns in the US and elsewhere that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might embolden China to move against Taiwan.
A meeting with Mr McCarthy would be the first between a Taiwanese leader and a US House Speaker on US soil, although it is seen as a potentially less provocative alternative to Mr McCarthy visiting Taiwan, something he has said he hopes to do.
Two sources said that as many as 20 or more US lawmakers planned to accompany Mr McCarthy for his meeting with Ms Tsai, originally set to be held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Los Angeles. The library has yet to confirm the meeting.
Two other sources said Ms Tsai would attend a banquet with Taiwanese Americans and overseas Taiwanese in New York, as well as a Hudson Institute event on Thursday. The institute is a think-tank to which Taiwan’s government is a significant donor, according to its annual reports.
US officials said Ms Tsai would also meet Ms Laura Rosenberger, chairman at the Washington headquarters of the American Institute in Taiwan, a US government-run, non-profit organisation that carries out unofficial relations with Taiwan.
Ms 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.
Ms Tsai’s transit comes when US relations with China are at what some analysts see as their worst level since Washington normalised ties with Beijing in 1979 and switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby urged China not to use a “normal” stopover as a pretext to increase aggressive activity against Taiwan.
“We’re mindful that things are tense right now” between the US and China, Mr Kirby said, but he urged Beijing to keep lines of communication open.
Mr Kirby said Washington still wanted to reschedule a trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken that was postponed in February when a suspected Chinese spy balloon was shot down by a US fighter jet.
A senior US administration official told reporters that Beijing had stepped up military, economic and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, but Washington would not alter its “longstanding practice” of facilitating transits through the US. REUTERS