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.
China staged major war games around Taiwan in August when then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei. Taiwan’s armed forces say they are watching for any Chinese moves when Ms Tsai is abroad.
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 is not 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 at 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 US confirmed Ms Tsai’s arrival in New York on Wednesday afternoon, and said none of her events were open to press or the public during her stopover there. Video clips showed her being greeted in the city by flag-waving supporters.
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 spokesperson Zhu Fenglian said in Beijing that if Ms Tsai met with 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 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.
Meetings and a banquet
The US transit is Ms Tsai’s seventh since taking office in 2016 and comes amid concerns in the United States and elsewhere that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might embolden China to move against Taiwan.
A meeting with 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 told Reuters that as many as 20 or more US lawmakers planned to accompany Mr McCarthy for his meeting with Ms Tsai, originally set for 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 an event on Thursday with the Hudson Institute, a think tank to which Taiwan’s government is a significant donor, according to its annual reports.