Taipei, Taiwan – Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen leaves on a 10-day tour of Central America on Wednesday with two scheduled stops in the United States where she is expected to meet with congressional leaders including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Tsai’s trip will take him on official state visits to Guatemala and Belize – two of Taiwan’s last diplomatic allies – but it is his time in the United States that is likely to be most scrutinized despite his unofficial status.
The United States does not formally recognize Taiwan, whose official name is the Republic of China (ROC), as the island is also claimed by Beijing, but Washington is nonetheless an important ally of the democratically run nation.
The Taiwanese president is expected to deliver a speech in New York organized by the Hudson Institute, a conservative American think tank, on March 30 en route to Latin America, then again at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California on her return to Asia. in April. .
There is an unspoken rule that Taiwanese presidents do not make official visits to the United States or travel to the capital Washington, D.C., but “transit stops” have become increasingly elaborate in recent years, said Kwei-Bo Huang, associate professor of diplomacy. at National Chengchi University in Taiwan.
“In the past, the president could not make public speeches and publicly engage with American political figures in the United States,” Huang said.
“Now the president can do it, but the US executive still won’t allow officials to meet or participate in ROC president’s events in the United States.”
The passage of the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act under the Trump administration has also made it easier for Taiwanese and U.S. officials to meet as Taiwan and the The United States has grown closer as relations between the two countries and China have diminished.
Tsai has visited the United States four times since taking office in 2016, during which time she has met Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and each trip has become more formal than the last.
However, there are limits.
Tsai’s trip to the United States is still widely seen as a temporary solution to McCarthy’s visit to Taiwan, as both sides hope to avoid angering China, which has held several days of military exercises in the Straits of Taiwan and fired missiles in protest at a trip last year by its predecessor. , Nancy Pelosi. The trip was the most significant visit by a US official in 25 years.
But Taipei and Washington do not want to appear give in to threats from Beijingor by doing away with a McCarthy trip altogether.
Taiwan’s presidential office confirmed the dates of Tsai’s trip but not the itinerary while Beijing said it was “seriously concerned” to learn that Tsai would be traveling to the United States and expressed his objection.
“Such visits are a reaffirmation of American support for Taiwan at a time when critics of the Tsai administration – and the CCP – are working to cast doubt on the reliability and commitment of the United States as a partner. of Taiwan,” said J Michael Cole, a Taipei-based adviser to the International Republican Institute (IRI).
Transition time in Taiwan?
Tsai’s trip also comes at a difficult time of transition for Taiwan, which lost diplomatic recognition to Honduras on Sunday, leaving it with just 13 diplomatic allies, including the Holy See in Rome, worldwide.
Already isolated when Tsai took office in 2016, China has continued to nibble at Taiwan’s official partners, including Panama, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
While relations with China are often strained, Beijing has a particular aversion to Tsai and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, who view Taiwan as a de facto independent state despite refraining from declaring full independence to avoid a war with China.
Taiwan’s future is also back on the national agenda as Taiwan has begun preparing for its next presidential election in January 2024 – and its political leaders beyond Tsai are on the move.
Ko Wen-je, the former mayor of Taipei and chairman of the People’s Party of Taiwan, is due to visit the United States in April as part of a first presidential bid.
As Tsai travels to the United States, his predecessor as president and Kuomintang (KMT) heavyweight Ma Ying-jeou visited China on Monday to pay respects at the graves of his ancestors and meet with Taiwanese students.
While KMT leaders regularly visit China, Ma’s trip was groundbreaking as he became the first former or current Taiwanese president to visit China since 1949, when the ROC and the People’s Republic of China split. .
“Given the timing – following the Honduran-Xi encounter with a war criminal in the Kremlin – there is reason to believe that the timing of the visit was misguided and could end up harming the KMT ahead of the election. of 2024,” said IRI’s Cole.
The KMT is known in Taiwan as much more pro-China than Tsai or the DPP, and Ma’s trip sends a signal to voters that the KMT is ready and able to negotiate with Beijing after years of deteriorating relations, said Jason Hsu, a former KMT. legislator and senior scholar at Harvard Kennedy School.
The KMT, including Ma, could be a banker of voters eager for change.
“Ma wants to act as a messenger of peace to communicate with Chinese leaders,” Hsu said.
“Ma is trying to offer the Chinese leadership a way to ensure that the KMT returns to power in 2024 and that the KMT can manage the relationship better than the DPP,” he said.
“So they’re trying to offer some assurance to the Chinese leadership to ‘don’t be so aggressive towards Taiwan, if the KMT comes back to power, there can be more communication,'” he added.