As Tensions Rise With China, McCarthy Huddles With Taiwanese President in Show of Democratic Solidarity

Summit comes as the Biden administration seeks to defuse diplomatic tensions with Beijing over Taiwan’s status

Kevin McCarthy greets Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
April 5, 2023

SIMI VALLEY, CALIF.—House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R.) said Wednesday that the bond between the United States and Taiwan "is stronger now than at any time or point in my life" during a high-profile California summit with the island nation’s president.

The congressional summit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library caps Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen’s whirlwind diplomatic tour of the island nation’s remaining allies, as she seeks to build a case for its democratic commitment amid looming threats from China. Tsai thanked McCarthy and the other American lawmakers in attendance, saying "their presence and unwavering support reassured the people of Taiwan" serves as a reminder to the Taiwanese people "that we are not isolated, and that we are not alone."

The meeting with McCarthy is just the second time Tsai has met with a senior House leader, following former House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D.) landmark visit to Taiwan last year. As with Pelosi’s visit, China threatened "to resolutely fight back" against Wednesday’s summit, claiming it threatens to upset the Communist regime’s "one-China principle" and undermine "China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity." China has also launched military drills in response to the visit and froze some diplomatic channels with the U.S. government.

While most of the House members in attendance were Republicans, McCarthy stressed that Wednesday’s summit "was a bipartisan meeting, Republicans and Democrats united together in a place that symbolizes the freedom and the commitment and the bond that has only become stronger."

Still, the meeting highlights a disconnect between the parties on the Taiwan question. Biden administration officials have repeatedly walked back President Joe Biden’s statements of support for the island nation, and Tsai was not scheduled to meet with any Biden administration officials during her stay in the United States.

Rep. Pete Aguilar (D., Calif.), the highest-ranking Democrat to join Wednesday’s summit, tried to tout Democrats’ work with the "Biden-Harris administration" to build the U.S.-Taiwan relationship for the "safety and security of the Pacific region." But the administration’s efforts to defuse diplomatic tensions with Beijing over Taiwan’s status has put them at odds with congressional Republicans, who want to boost U.S. military assistance to the island.

Taiwanese Americans met Tsai outside the library with Taiwanese flags, banners supporting a free Hong Kong, and chants of support. But security remained tight in spite of the celebratory mood at the library, with guards struggling to contain the hundreds of reporters in attendance. At one point, a security guard with the press pool received a radio warning that Taiwanese police were "eyeballing two individuals" as a potential safety threat.

McCarthy’s choice of a venue across the country from Washington, D.C., only highlighted this disconnect. The Reagan Library is an emblematic stronghold for California’s beleaguered Republican minority, full of reminders of the nation’s victory over communism, including a piece of the fallen Berlin Wall.

"Fittingly, our discussion took place here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential library," McCarthy noted, adding that the library symbolizes "Reagan's patriotic spirit, his belief in democracy, and commitment to the ideas of peace and freedom."

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D., Ill.) expressed a similar sentiment at a press conference with lawmakers after the summit, noting that "we can agree with what [Reagan] said…which is that we want to be a free people," and adding that "Taiwan deserves to be free."

Speaking at the same press conference, McCarthy reiterated his earlier bipartisan overtures.

"You’re watching your lawmakers stand together, with both parties advocating for greater democracy with a plan to help deter any chance of war in the future," McCarthy said, adding that he believes Biden shares House Republicans’ commitment to boosting Taiwan’s defenses through arms shipments.

Democratic lawmakers who attended the summit agreed, noting that the White House is trying to speed up the government’s arms shipment backlog. and suggesting that some countries who are ahead in the pipeline may be willing to let Taiwan go ahead of them given its precarious situation.

A State Department spokesman offered a less direct assessment, telling the Washington Free Beacon that "high-level authorities from Taiwan, including President Tsai, have previously met with Members of Congress, which is a separate and co-equal branch of government, during past transits." A McCarthy spokesman said the speaker briefed administration officials on the summit, as is typical for congressional diplomatic junkets.

McCarthy and other lawmakers downplayed the prospects of conflict, repeatedly saying China is the only party pushing provocation.

"Look, I know everyone puts these hypotheticals [of invasion] out there," McCarthy said at the afternoon press conference. "Our goal is that the hypothetical never comes to fruition. And what we know through history, the best way to do that is supply the weapons that allow people to deter war, supply the weapons that people could defend themselves."

The White House has been trying hard to appease Beijing ahead of the meeting to avoid a repeat of the furor around Pelosi’s delegation visit on Taiwanese soil, Bloomberg reported last week. McCarthy kept details of the summit close to the vest, although hundreds of reporters attended, including dozens from Taiwan.

Tsai did not seem to believe that a Chinese invasion is imminent, the lawmakers added, but she did decry Chinese Communist Party oppression and voiced her concern about a heavy-handed political propaganda campaign already underway for next year’s presidential elections, when the CCP is hoping to sway the Taiwanese to elect a pro-Beijing candidate from among Tsai’s opposition.

Update 6:45 p.m.: This piece has been updated with additional comments from lawmakers.