The Financial Times reported on Monday that U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy will no longer be visiting Taipei to meet with senior government officials including Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, and would instead be meeting with Tsai in California. The report stated that Tsai persuaded McCarthy to make this change so as to avoid provoking China – which might respond to a McCarthy trip with military drills around Taiwan, as it did following then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August 2022.
Pelosi was the first U.S. Speaker of the House to visit Taiwan in 25 years, with Newt Gingrich having visited in 1997. Following the Pelosi visit, China conducted live-fire exercises in the waters surrounding Taiwan. The live-fire exercises were announced as taking place closer to Taiwan than drills during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. The Pelosi visit and its aftermath made headlines around the world, in line with rising tensions between Taiwan and China.
McCarthy previously indicated an interest in visiting Taiwan if he became speaker of the House and stated that he would have liked to join Pelosi’s visit. Subsequently, shortly after he obtained the post of speaker, reporting by Punchbowl News indicated that the Pentagon was preparing for McCarthy to visit Taiwan.
On the other hand, Tsai is slated to stop over in the United States in April on the way to visit several of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in Central America. As formal visits from a Taiwanese president to the U.S. often lead to strong reactions from China, it is common for such stopovers to occur on the way to visit diplomatic allies with which Taiwan has formal relations.
Tsai previously made stopovers in the United States in 2018 and 2019. However, as this is Tsai’s last year in office – her second and final term will end in May 2024 – there has been increased speculation about what might take place on the trip.
Some reports suggested that Tsai might visit Cornell University to give a speech in the mold of Lee Teng-hui’s famous 1995 speech there, in which he emphasized Taiwan’s political differences from China. Cornell University was where Lee earned his doctorate and Tsai her master’s degree. Lee’s 1995 speech was one of the driving causes of the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis later that year, which saw China launch military exercises after the speech in an unsuccessful attempt to deter the public from voting for Lee in elections the following year. As Tsai entered politics as something of a protege of Lee’s, the parallel would be strongly symbolic.
But the fact that it was apparently Tsai who pushed McCarthy not to visit Taiwan is significant – and telling about what else might or might not be on her agenda in the United States. Tsai is likely hoping to avoid international perceptions that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is deliberately provoking China, as Lee was accused of doing through his 1995 speech.
Similarly, Chen Shui-bian, the first DPP president of Taiwan, was often perceived internationally as overly provocative of China in the service of a pro-independence agenda. As Tsai leaves office, there have been some international anxieties about whether the DPP’s expected presidential candidate, William Lai, could prove more strident in calling for independence.
Indeed, Tsai chose to turn down the McCarthy visit despite the chance that she and the DPP could tout it as a foreign policy achievement in the 2024 elections, as the party did with the Pelosi visit before. Polling from television broadcaster TVBS last month suggests that more than half of Taiwanese would support a McCarthy visit. Likewise, even as many international observers viewed the Pelosi visit as recklessly antagonistic toward China, polling suggested that Taiwanese themselves were relatively unfazed by the ensuing Chinese drills.
As China has increased its military drills around Taiwan in past years to occur on a near-daily basis, it may be that Taiwanese have grown inured to Chinese threats, which sometimes come across as repetitive and mundane rather than signifying progressively escalating threats. Nevertheless, drills involving not just air incursions but also People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels were not as common before the post-Pelosi live-fire exercises, and the Taiwanese government claims that China seeks a pretext to practice coordination between the different wings of its armed forces for future military action.
Thus, even if McCarthy will no longer be visiting Taiwan, it is possible that China will react militarily to his meeting with Tsai anyway as a show of force – or for rehearsal purposes. And if a military reaction from China is inevitable, Tsai may primarily have her eye on avoiding accusations that her government is as going out of its way to raise tensions.
At the same time, since last year, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) has increasingly leaned into claims that the DPP’s actions are dangerously provocative. To this end, Tsai may also hope to avoid such perceptions domestically.
Where the KMT would stand on a McCarthy visit to Taiwan is somewhat opaque. Current party chair Eric Chu has publicly sought to rebrand the KMT as a pro-U.S. party, but after the post-Pelosi military exercises, deputy chair Andrew Hsia was dispatched to China to meet with Chinese government officials. Hsia most recently visited China again last month, where he met with the Chinese Communist Party’s chief ideologist Wang Huning and Song Tao, the newly appointed director of the Taiwan Affairs Office.
Last month, Alexander Huang, the head of the KMT’s Department of International Affairs, claimed that it was “definite” that McCarthy would visit Taiwan this year. Huang criticized the DPP for failing to do enough to prepare for such a visit, and accused the ruling party of having failed to sufficiently prepare for China’s military exercises before the Pelosi visit.
Pelsoi’s visit raised questions about the advisability of Taiwan hosting a U.S. speaker of the House, especially if this was primarily a symbolic show of support and Taiwan did not see substantive gains from the visit (such as a trade deal or arms sale agreement). The desirability of symbolic shows of support for Taiwan, such as changing the name of Taiwan’s representative offices in the United States, versus less flashy but perhaps more substantive means of support has become increasingly debated in U.S. policy circles.
Furthermore, some analysts read Pelosi’s visit as intended to burnish her foreign policy credentials as a legacy move, or to shore up the Democrats’ hawkish credentials on China before midterm elections in the United States, rather than specifically to benefit Taiwan. Similarly, a McCarthy visit may be intended to signal parity with Pelosi or to reinforce the idea that Republicans are being tough on China – and thus reflect U.S. domestic posturing more than concrete gains for Taiwan.
At the time of the Pelosi visit, reports suggested that the DPP had tried to turn down a Pelosi visit and was overruled. The veracity of these reports is unclear, seeing as they appeared in the China Times, which according to previous reporting by the Financial Times has directly accepted editorial directions from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. But that the McCarthy visit was called off in favor of Tsai meeting him in the United States will no doubt stoke speculation.
Either way, the ball is in Beijing’s court as to how to react to this shift of plans.