US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy emphasized the need to speed up arms deliveries to Taiwan after meeting with its president Tsai Ing-Wen in California on Wednesday.
McCarthy became the most senior US politician to meet a Taiwanese leader on US soil in decades, but neither he nor Tsai appeared troubled by threats of retaliation from China.
A China foreign ministry spokesperson denounced the meeting, accusing the United States of colluding with separatists seeking “Taiwan independence” and saying it had breached its commitments on the island, which Beijing sees as a breakaway province that will be brought under control by force if necessary.
Maritime authorities in China’s Fujian province launched a three-day special patrol and inspection operation in the Taiwan Strait that includes moves to board ships. Taiwan said it had lodged a strong protest with China about the move.
Watch on Chinese carrier
Tsai thanked the US Congress for standing by Taiwan when democracy was under threat and cited former US President Reagan saying that “to preserve peace, we must be strong.”
The meeting came at a time of deteriorating US-Chinese relations – the worst since the countries established diplomatic relations in 1979, many analysts say.
Concerns are rising among Western officials that China, which staged war games around the island last August following a visit by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, could attempt to take Taiwan by force in the coming years.
On Wednesday, Taiwan’s defence 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.
While Washington has no official relations with Taiwan, it is bound by law to provide the island with the means to defend itself and has stepped up interactions with Taipei in recent years as Beijing’s pressure on the island has increased.
Standing with Tsai in front of a blue-and-white Boeing aircraft that Reagan flew on as president in the 1980s, McCarthy called the friendship between the people of Taiwan and America “a matter of profound importance to the free world.”
Speaking at a later news conference alongside Republican and Democratic lawmakers who took part in the meeting with Tsai, McCarthy said they had discussed how to speed up weapons deliveries to Taiwan.
“We must continue the arms sales to Taiwan and make sure such sales reach Taiwan on a very timely basis,” he said, adding that he believed there was bipartisan agreement on this. “Second, we must strengthen our economic cooperation, particularly with trade and technology.”
Meet coincides with EU visit
Mike Gallagher, Republican chairman of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, said after the meeting he would like to look for ways get Harpoon anti-ship missiles to Taiwan ahead of those scheduled to go to Saudi Arabia.
US officials say weapons such as the Harpoon missile are far more important for Taiwan’s defence than the heavy weaponry, including tanks and aircraft, that the island’s military has traditionally purchased from the United States.
At a news conference in Brussels, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there was nothing new in Tsai’s transits and such stops were “private” and “unofficial.”
China repeatedly warned against the meeting between McCarthy and Tsai, who is on her first US stopover since 2019, although some analysts expect its reaction to be more moderate than that to Pelosi’s Taipei visit.
February saw the dramatic shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon that drifted over US territory and Xu Xueyuan, charge d’affaires at China’s Washington embassy, said last week McCarthy meeting Tsai “could lead to another serious confrontation in the China-US relationship.”
The California meeting was seen as a less provocative alternative to McCarthy visiting Taiwan, something he has said he hopes to do.
China has yet to comment on the carrier group, whose appearance also coincided with the arrival in Beijing of French President Emmanuel Macron. It has sailed its carriers near Taiwan before and at similarly sensitive times.
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.
Threat to board vessels in Strait
Taiwan was monitoring a Chinese aircraft carrier and threats to inspect ships in the Taiwan Strait on Thursday.
The Chinese carrier, the Shandong, was spotted on Wednesday and was 200 nautical miles (370km) off Taiwan’s east cost, Taiwan Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told reporters at parliament in Taipei.
“It is training but the timing is quite sensitive, and what it is up to we are still studying,” Chiu said, adding aircraft had yet to be seen taking off from its deck.
He later told lawmakers the ship was east of the very southern tip of Taiwan, and Taiwanese warships were monitoring it at a distance of five to six nautical miles.
The US aircraft carrier the USS Nimitz is also some 400 nautical miles east of Taiwan, Chiu said. “It can’t be said it’s here for us, but as soon as this situation happened – it’s all related,” he added.
The latest US lawmaker delegation to Taiwan, led by Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, arrived in Taipei on Thursday. Tsai is due to return to Taipei on Friday.
Ko Cheng-heng, deputy head of Taiwan’s National Security Bureau, told lawmakers on Thursday they did not expect such a strong reaction from China as followed Pelosi’s trip.
“What the Chinese communists care more about is whether McCarthy will visit Taiwan,” he said.
China is also trying to show a more diplomatic face to the world, Ko said, noting French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are currently in Beijing.
Taiwan is also concerned about China’s announcement late on Wednesday that its maritime safety administration would inspect ships in the Taiwan Strait, including possibly boarding them.
Taiwan has told shipping operators that if they encounter such requests from China they should refuse them and immediately notify Taiwan’s coast guard to render assistance.
Defence Minister Chiu said Taiwan will react if Chinese patrol ships cross the Taiwan Strait’s median line, which normally serves as an unofficial barrier between the two sides.
- Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard