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Speaker McCarthy’s California meeting with Tsai threads Taiwan needle

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Last year, House Speaker-hopeful Kevin McCarthy said he would “love” to visit Taiwan. But now that he has become the Republican leader, a trip to Taipei, he has been advised, would get tangled up in Taiwanese presidential election politics.

In recent weeks, an opportunity arose to meet Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in early April in California, where she has been invited to make a public speech at the Reagan Library.

McCarthy said this week the trip to California “has nothing to do with my travel, if I would go to Taiwan.” China, he said, cannot tell him “where I can go at any time, at any place.”

China claims the self-governed island as its own territory and has not ruled out taking control of it by force.

Taiwanese officials have advised McCarthy’s staff, according to people familiar with the matter, that a trip this year would be exploited for political purposes by the opposition Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang. The KMT favors closer ties with Beijing and, in the run-up to next year’s presidential election, has sought to portray Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party’s cross-strait policy as dangerous, unnecessarily provocative and raising the risk of war with China.

Tsai is visiting the United States in late March and early April on her way to Central America, making at least two U.S. stops — in New York and Simi Valley, Calif. She is due to speak March 30 at a private event in New York City hosted by the conservative think tank the Hudson Institute. Congressional leaders, including McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), will be invited, according to people familiar with the matter, who like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

The flurry of developments around Tsai’s trip comes as Beijing has intensified its rhetoric toward Washington. In the past week, Chinese President Xi Jinping directly accused the United States of leading Western nations in a campaign of “all-around containment, encirclement and suppression of China.” Xi has typically refrained from naming Washington, instead criticizing “certain countries” as deploying a “Cold War” mentality and trying to suppress China.

On Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said “China firmly opposes any form of official interaction between the U.S. and the Taiwan region,” and “firmly opposes the U.S. having any form of contact with ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist elements.”

A spokesman for Tsai said her office had no comment because the president’s “schedule is still being worked out.” The spokesman also said no one in the president’s office had asked McCarthy not to visit Taiwan.

The Reagan Library on Jan. 24 invited Tsai to give a public speech, according to a copy of the invitation obtained by The Washington Post. She gave her first public address in the United States as president at the library in 2018. A Reagan Foundation spokeswoman said that as of Saturday, she still could not confirm Tsai’s visit, but two other individuals directly familiar with the matter said she had accepted the invitation.

McCarthy plans to meet with her in Simi Valley, and the hope is that he will introduce her before she makes a major policy address, the person said. He has begun to invite Democratic lawmakers to join him on the trip.

Tsai’s appearance at the Hudson Institute event and McCarthy’s plan to meet with Tsai in California were first reported by the Financial Times.

At the Hudson Institute private dinner, Tsai will deliver a speech and be given a global leadership award that was previously bestowed on former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, and then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. It will be Tsai’s first time appearing in person with the organization, which hosted her for a virtual event in 2020.

McCarthy’s meeting with Tsai in California threads the needle of showing support for Taiwan while making it difficult for China to mount an aggressive response, said Eric Sayers, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute: “It’s a win for a DPP that is sensitive ahead of next year’s election, for Tsai who will get to speak to an expanded American audience about her country’s role in the world, for McCarthy who has a unique opportunity to elevate the importance of Taiwan inside the United States, and it will really complicate Beijing’s ability to deploy a provocative military response around Taiwan.”

The Reagan Library event, scheduled for April 5, comes less than a year after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited Taiwan, becoming the first sitting speaker to do so in 25 years. In Taipei, she met with Tsai and received a presidential award.

China responded in the days after with a show of military force, rattling neighbors in the region. Ballistic missiles it fired over the self-ruled island landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. It closed off areas of the sea around Taiwan in what some analysts said appeared to simulate an economic blockade. Its naval ships and military jets crossed the median line, the unofficial maritime boundary halfway between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland that both sides traditionally had respected.

Tsai’s visit to the United States will incur Beijing’s ire, but probably not to such a degree that the People’s Liberation Army mounts a military response similar to what was done after Pelosi’s visit. “We’re in election season in Taiwan, and it’s almost certain that the KMT [Nationalist Party] is messaging Beijing, essentially saying ‘don’t stir the waters here,’” said Jude Blanchette, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Tsai is the first woman to be elected president of Taiwan and is in the final year of her second four-year term. While her Democratic Progressive Party has in the past advocated for formal independence, its more recent stance is to maintain the current delicate balance with Beijing while also strengthening Taiwan’s ties with the United States and other Western democracies.

Polls show a competitive race for the presidential election in January.

“President Tsai likely sees more downside than upside from a visit by Rep. McCarthy this year,” said Bonnie Glaser, the managing director of the German Marshall Fund’s Indo-Pacific program.

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), who chairs the new Select Committee on China, plans to hold a hearing in Taiwan this year. He has suggested that a better time for McCarthy to visit might be after next year’s election on a trip that could be informed by what Gallagher learns in Taipei.

Lily Kuo and Christian Shepherd in Taipei and John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.