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The Geopolitics of Speaker McCarthy’s Meeting with the Taiwanese President


The Geopolitics of Speaker McCarthy’s Meeting with the Taiwanese President

On April 5th, U.S. Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, welcomed Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. Ms. Tsai’s visit with Mr. McCarthy, who is second in line to the presidency, is the highest-ever profile meeting between Taiwanese and U.S. lawmakers on American soil. Accompanied by a bipartisan congressional delegation, Mr. McCarthy reaffirmed American support for Taiwanese sovereignty while demonstrating Congress would not be deterred by Beijing’s threats. In the weeks leading up to the event, Chinese officials repeatedly warned the Speaker, even emailing the attending U.S. lawmakers the morning of April 5th, labeling it a “blatant provocation.” Immediately after the meeting, several spokespersons for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) vocalized their disapproval, calling it a violation of China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and “the basic norms of international relations.” Ms. Tsai’s recent rendezvous echoes Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year, which elicited a ferocious Chinese response in the form of 11-day military exercises, missile launches, and a simulated island blockade. However, China’s reaction exhibited more restraint this time, with military displays lasting only three days and no blockade. Why is this?

Of course, the PRC considers Taiwan part of its territory and vows to reincorporate the island under President Xi Jinping’s National Rejuvenation scheme. The One China Policy, adopted by the U.N. and the U.S., recognizes Beijing as the sole authority over all Chinese territory, including Taiwan. Acknowledging Taiwanese sovereignty and violating the One China Principle is the foremost redline governing any country’s relations with the PRC. In the last week, China operated an aircraft carrier off Taiwan’s east coast, imposed several symbolic sanctions, violated Taiwanese airspace, and deployed several other intimidation tactics. However, experts note how the PRC departed from the overwhelming shows of force utilized after Pelosi’s visit, notably the absence of missile launches.

With Ms. Tsai due to step down in 2024, Xi knows an overreaction could hurt the opposition’s chances in the subsequent elections. Ms. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is the bulwark against reunification, championing independence and a Taiwanese identity distinct from mainland China. Xi’s bellicosity after Pelosi’s visit and his brutal crackdown on Hong Kong’s protestors only heightened support for the DPP. Currently, the PRC plans to reunite with Taiwan peacefully, and Xi views the Kuomintang Party (KMT) as his best chance. As the main opposition to the DPP, the KMT favors closer ties with China, and some members support reunification altogether. While the next election will be pivotal to Taiwan’s future, greater geopolitical forces are at play.

At the dawn of a new era of great power competition, Xi wants to portray himself as a responsible international statesman who will mediate disputes and broker peace accords with no underlying motivations. On the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion, Xi released his 12-point peace plan as a roadmap to a potential ceasefire. For good reasons, the U.S. and its allies dismissed the proposal, which fails to condemn Putin’s invasion and reiterates Russian narratives of NATO provocations and Western aggression. Indeed, a thorough analysis of the ambiguous 12 points shows that the plan is little more than political theater. Nonetheless, the quick dismissal by the West encourages the false narrative that it has no interest in peace while depicting Xi as a neutral arbiter in global conflicts.

China demonstrated its growing presence in early March when Saudi Arabia and Iran announced they would reestablish diplomatic relations after talks facilitated in Beijing. In 2016, Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran after protestors stormed its Tehran embassy in response to the execution of a prominent Shia cleric. The PRC state media released photos depicting Iranian and Saudi officials shaking hands with China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in the background. The news reverberated in Washington, which views Saudi Arabia as a strategic partner and counterweight to Iranian regional influence. However, American relations with Saudi Arabia deteriorated recently after President Biden pledged to make the kingdom a pariah over the crown prince’s connection to the gruesome murder of a Washington Post columnist. While the accord could be a win for regional stability, the significance of Chinese mediation with America’s faltering presence is indisputable. Though the U.S. still wields regional influence, China appears keen on filling the diplomatic void and acting where the U.S. cannot.

As Beijing’s diplomatic clout and global profile steadily increase, so have tensions with the U.S. in what looks to be the start of a new Cold War. It’s no secret the Biden administration seeks to build an international coalition countering Chinese influence, choking off access to certain technologies and pushing businesses to relocate supply chains elsewhere. While Biden’s assessments are strategically correct, Xi attempts to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its allies. Last week French President Emmanuel Macron concluded a three-day visit to China where the two leaders lauded a “global strategic partnership.” The message was this: France has no plans to decouple its economy from China, and Macron sees Xi as instrumental to ending the war in Ukraine. The phrase “multipolar world” frequented discussions, alluding to a new international order where America no longer stands alone at the top. Most concerningly, Macron warned Europe against entering disputes that are not their own, referencing Taiwan.

With Sino-American relations at rock bottom, all eyes look to Taiwan as a future flashpoint, but conflict is not unavoidable. What is inevitable is the diplomatic competition already afoot. The PRC appears to be winning, but do not count America out just yet. While Washington’s military prowess is unrivaled, the U.S. must do better diplomatically. For one, Biden should stop alienating half the globe by framing each dispute as a struggle between democracy and autocracy. Standing with Taiwan and Ukraine is a moral imperative not because they are democracies but because sovereignty is the foundation of international stability and a nation’s existence. A country need not be a democracy to support sovereignty, and the democracy-autocracy rhetoric fails to resonate with much of the developing world.

On the contrary, it’s often interpreted as Western liberal arrogance and condescension. A well-functioning Democracy is indisputably the most just and desired form of governance, but the previous decades show the U.S. cannot force the regime on other nations. America lost recent opportunities by shunning nondemocratic partners like Saudi Arabia. As time progresses, the world will see the PRC for what it is: a state intent on reshaping the world order in its image. But for now, America must convince countries everywhere, democracies and dictatorships alike, that the world order it crafted after WWII has no better alternatives.