Taiwan deputy leader’s trip tests US-China thaw

The two-month-old thawing of ties between Beijing and Washington faces its first major test this weekend, with Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te becoming the self-governing island’s latest leader to “transit” through the United States amid protests from China.

Lai arrives in New York on Saturday en route to Paraguay to attend the inauguration of President-elect Santiago Peña Palacios, before flying home next week – this time after overnighting in San Francisco.

The so-called U.S. “transits” by the front-runner in January’s presidential election in Taiwan come at a sensitive time in relations between Washington and Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its own territory and opposes direct ties between it and the United States.

At the Aspen Security Forum last month, China’s ambassador in Washington, Xie Feng, even described Lai as being “like a gray rhino charging at us,” a euphemism that suggested the vice-president could create a loud disturbance in the warming U.S.-China relationship.

As a result, Lai’s visit will take place with little fanfare.

“I think the Biden administration wants to keep this visit low-profile,” said Kharis Templeman, a research fellow and Taiwan expert at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, “and Lai’s team understands that and won’t do anything to push the limits this time around.”

While such a trip was nothing out of the ordinary, Templeman noted, Beijing was already “pathologically suspicious of Lai,” who has in the past been associated with Taiwanese independence, and will likely react angrily “to indicate the depth of their opposition to Lai’s visit.” 

“They may also want to make it clear to Taiwan voters that cross-Strait relations will only get worse if they vote for Lai,” he added.

Cooling ties

Lai’s trip mirrors transits through the United States earlier this year by his boss, President Tsai Ing-wen, which were at the time similarly slammed by Beijing as flagrant violations of the “One China principle,” by which it claims the self-governing island as “inalienable” territory.

However, Tsai’s trip came during a more perilous time in U.S.-China relations, with ties heavily strained by the spy balloon incident, U.S. microchip policies and aggressive maneuvers by Chinese fighter jets and warships near Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen waves as she arrives at a hotel in New York, March 30, 2023, during her transit en route to Central America. (John Minchillo/AP)

Since that friction started to ebb in mid-June, though, three members of President Joe Biden’s cabinet have made trips to Beijing, with a fourth – Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo – expected to follow.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also been invited to make a trip to Washington, with State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller saying this week that it is “our full expectation that he will travel to the United States” to meet Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

That may be muddied by the U.S. trips by Lai, though, who could soon lead the self-governing island Beijing says is a renegade province.

While Tsai’s trip in April en route to similar engagements in Taiwan’s few remaining Latin American allies was more high-profile – it included the president receiving a leadership award in New York from the conservative Hudson Institute – China has seemed no less peeved by this trip by the man it calls “the deputy leader of the Taiwan region.”

Besides the Chinese ambassador’s comments likening Lai’s trip to a stampeding rhino, China’s foreign ministry has separately called on the United States to “refuse” Lai’s visit, and reiterated its anger at “U.S. connivance and support for ‘Taiwan independence’ separatists.”

“The Taiwan question is at the core of China’s core interests and a red line that cannot be crossed,” a spokesperson for the ministry said.
“China urges the U.S. to abide by the ‘One China’ principle.”

No meet, no foul

Lai is no stranger to controversy, having called himself a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence.” In 2017, he also declared: “I am without a doubt a politician who supports Taiwanese independence” who “will never change this stance no matter what office I hold.”

But he has since largely hewed to his party’s line that since Taiwan is “already” independent of Beijing and operating as its own sovereign nation, it does not need to make any “further” declarations.

Lai himself is also clearly hoping for a lower-profile trip this time than Tsai’s earlier this year, with Wang Juntao, a leader of the pro-Taiwan Chinese Democratic Party in New York City, saying there are plans to organize rallies to welcome him as they did Tsai earlier this year.

Wang said he understood Taipei’s diplomatic “dilemma.”

“They want to use the ‘transit’ to showcase the U.S. support for Taiwan’s democracy, but also don’t want to create any potential trouble for the U.S.,” Wang said, adding that “the U.S. doesn’t want to provoke too much conflict. It’s difficult to strike the right balance.”

As is usual for such unofficial “transits” by Taiwan’s leaders, U.S. officials also say there are no plans for White House officials to meet with Lai during his trips through the United States, and note his itinerary – like Tsai’s in April – carefully avoids Washington.

In this 2015 photo, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen [center] laughs while party officials, including Tainan Mayor Lai Ching-te [left], prepare to shout slogans during a news conference in Taipei. (Pichi Chuang/Reuters)

U.S. executive branch leaders have over the years left such meetings to lawmakers, as with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s meeting with Tsai in April or his predecessor Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan last August, which triggered the nearly year of tense ties with Beijing.

U.S.-Taiwan relationship

In the background, though, some in Congress have been pressing for even closer official ties with Taiwan. A group of House members last month wrote a public letter to Vice President Kamala Harris calling on her to meet with Lai during his trip, as his formal U.S. counterpart.

Lawmakers in 2018 also passed a law – the Taiwan Travel Act – that expressly allows Taiwanese leaders and officials to visit the United States and authorizes White House officials, as well as officials at the departments of defense and state, to openly meet with them.

More recently, a bipartisan group of senators has pushed to end the practice of “double taxation” for people who work in both Taiwan and the United States by allowing them to choose where they will be taxed, a measure that would treat the island even more like its own country.

Others still want to outright recognize Taiwan as independent.

Rep. Tom Tiffany, a Republican from Wisconsin who was one of the House members who wrote to Harris, told Radio Free Asia that since Chinese President Xi Jinping had made “very clear” he planned to one day annex Taiwan, current U.S. policy was akin to “appeasement.”

He said that’s why he introduced a bill to recognize Taiwan as a country. The legislation, he said, was considered fringe only a few years ago, with only one other co-sponsor, but has since gained steam amid growing tensions with China and now has 44 co-sponsors.

“History is littered with people who have chosen appeasement with those who are belligerent. It simply does not work,” he said. “Taiwan has never been part of China. The Taiwanese want to be an independent nation, and they should be allowed to be.”

A threat to the thaw

Still, many in Washington still see that kind of stance as unnecessarily belligerent in itself, fearing that changing the U.S. stance could provoke an invasion Beijing could otherwise indefinitely delay as unwise.

“We want Xi Jinping to wake up every day and say ‘Hey, you know, it’s too costly. The risk is too high. Today’s not the day we’re going to invade,’” said Bonnie Glaser, the managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“Xi Jinping has not made a political decision to invade Taiwan,” she added. “He has a huge amount of problems on his plate already.”

But for Lai, the ever-present threat of an invasion makes paying a visit to the United States a no-brainer, especially if that annoys Beijing, said Wu’er Kaixi, a former Tiananmen Square protest leader and general secretary of the Taiwan Parliamentary Human Rights Commission.

“If China is going to play any role in the upcoming presidential elections, it would be the question of whether Taiwan is prepared to defend itself, or whether it’s better off doing a deal with Beijing,” Wu’er Kaixi told RFA, adding it seemed clear where the votes were.

“Taiwanese watched what happened in Hong Kong,” he said, “and most of them refuse doing a deal with Beijing.”

Jane Tang contributed reporting.

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