Taipei, Taiwan – Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen departs on Wednesday for a 10-day tour of Central America with two stopovers planned in the United States where she is expected to meet with congressional leaders including Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy.
Tsai’s trip will take her on an official state visit to Guatemala and Belize – two of Taiwan’s last remaining diplomatic allies – but it is her time in the US that will likely be most scrutinised despite its unofficial status.
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The US does not formally recognise Taiwan, whose official name is the Republic of China (ROC), as the island is also claimed by Beijing, but Washington is nevertheless an important ally of the democratically ruled nation.
The Taiwanese president is expected to give a speech in New York hosted by the Hudson Institute, a conservative US think tank, on March 30 en route to Latin America and 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 US, or travel to the capital Washington, DC, but “transit stops” have become increasingly elaborate in recent years, said Kwei-Bo Huang, an associate professor of diplomacy at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.
“In the past, the president couldn’t make a public speech and engage publicly with US political figures in the US,” Huang said.
“Now, the president can do that, but the US executive branch still does not allow officials to meet with or participate in the ROC president’s events in the US.”
The passage of the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act under the Trump administration has also made it easier for Taiwanese and US officials to meet as Taiwan and the US moved closer as relations between both countries and China have diminished.
Tsai has visited the US four times since first taking office in 2016, during which time she met with Republican senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and each trip has become more formal than the last.
There are limits, however.
Tsai’s trip to the US is still widely seen as a temporary workaround to McCarthy visiting Taiwan as both sides hope to avoid angering China, which staged several days of military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and fired missiles to protest against a trip last year by his predecessor, Nancy Pelosi. The trip was the highest-ranking visit by a US official in 25 years.
But Taipei and Washington do not want to appear to be giving in to Beijing’s threats, either, by scrapping 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 visit the US and voiced its objection.
“Such visits are a reaffirmation of US support for Taiwan at a time when critics of the Tsai administration — and the CCP — strive to sow doubt about the reliability and commitment of the US as a partner to Taiwan,” said J Michael Cole, a Taipei-based adviser with the International Republican Institute (IRI).
Transition time in Taiwan?
Tsai’s trip also comes at a difficult moment of transition for Taiwan, which on Sunday lost diplomatic recognition from Honduras, leaving it with just 13 diplomatic allies, including the Holy See in Rome, around the world.
Already isolated when Tsai took office in 2016, China has continued to chip away at Taiwan’s official partners including Panama, Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
While relations with China are often tense, Beijing holds particular dislike for Tsai and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, who see Taiwan as a de facto independent state although they have stopped short of declaring full independence to avoid a war with China.
Taiwan’s future is also once again on the national agenda as Taiwan has started gearing up 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 Taiwan People’s Party, is due to visit the US in April as an opening bid to run as president.
As Tsai visits the US, her presidential predecessor and Kuomintang (KMT) heavyweight Ma Ying-jeou travelled to China on Monday to pay respects to 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 — in the wake of Honduras and Xi’s meeting with a war criminal in the Kremlin — there are grounds to believe that the timing of the visit was ill-advised and might end up harming the KMT ahead of the elections in 2024,” the IRI’s Cole said.
The KMT is known in Taiwan as much more China-friendly 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 research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.
The KMT, including Ma, may be banking voters wanting change.
“Ma wants to act as a messenger of peace to communicate with the leaders of China,” Hsu said.
“Ma is trying to offer a way to Chinese leaders that KMT might come back to power in 2024 and the KMT can manage the relationship better than DPP,” he said.
“So they are trying to offer some assurance to Chinese leaders of ‘don’t be so aggressive to Taiwan, if the KMT comes back to power there can be more communication,” he added.