When Tsai Ing-wen’s presidential motorcade drove into the Ronald Reagan library grounds on Wednesday, opposing camps of protesters lined the road. Tsai, leader of the Republic of China – Taiwan’s formal name – was on her way to meet the third-highest-ranking official in the US, the House speaker, Kevin McCarthy.
On one side was an eclectic mix of Taiwan’s US-based diaspora, Taiwan supporters, professed Chinese supporters of Tsai, and activists from Hong Kong and Tibet. On the other was a group that Christine Lu, a Taiwanese-American, described as “very coordinated”, and who were waving huge Chinese flags, and pro-Chinese Communist party and anti-Tsai placards. The groups soon came to blows and had to be separated by police.
“Passions are inflamed, especially between groups with feelings which are a little raw when it comes to political ideology,” said Lu, who had rallied in support of Tsai, and filmed the scuffle.
Tsai’s US visit totalled three nights in two cities on the way to and from Taiwan’s Central American allies, Guatemala and Belize. It has divided opinion and further strained relations across the strait, between China and the US, and within Taiwan itself.
The tense scenes followed her from New York, where she gave a speech to the Hudson Institute and met members of Congress. Pro and anti-Tsai protesters gathered at the airport and outside her hotel. Taiwan’s security services accused China’s Communist party of paying members of the Chinese diaspora to rally. The anti groups included US-based Chinese organisations, at least one linked to the CCP’s United Front influence network, and another that reportedly once counted as a member the man who shot six people, killing one, at a Taiwanese-American church last year.
Plans for Tsai and McCarthy’s meeting had prompted Beijing threats of unspecified retaliation for the US enabling a “separatist”. The US warned China not to use the “normal” stopovers as a pretext for hostility. But still there was fear that Beijing would ignore that, and repeat the live-fire exercises it launched last August, after McCarthy’s predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taipei.
Beijing claims Taiwan is a province of China and has sworn to annex it, by force if needed. A war over Taiwan would be devastating for its 23 million people, and would have far-reaching repercussions “for quite literally every country on Earth”, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said this week.
The US is Taiwan’s biggest supporter in its defence against a Chinese assault. That support has grown as China-US relations have dangerously deteriorated. This week the editor-in-chief of the Economist, Zanny Minton Beddoes, returned from a Beijing visit and told the Drum Tower podcast: “If we manage in the coming years to avoid an outright conflict … that for me is going to be a measure of success.”
So far, the reaction to the McCarthy meeting has not approached that dished out for Pelosi. Beijing authorities have blasted off some angry statements, imposed sanctions against a handful of individuals or entities involved in Tsai’s trip, and sent warships and planes past Taiwan. The August drills had been specifically linked to Pelosi’s visit, but the activities this week were only loosely linked or just presumed to be a reaction to Tsai’s US visit.
Most of the concern among observers has centred on the non-military patrol operation in the Taiwan Strait, announced by Chinese coastguards on Wednesday. Taiwan’s government told Taiwanese vessels – including ferries and cargo ships – not to comply with any Chinese attempt to board.
So far, there hasn’t been one, but if there is, “it could escalate between the two sides”, said Bonnie Glaser, a Taiwan expert at the US-based German Marshall Fund thinktank.
The reason Beijing didn’t overreact to the same degree as last year may be due to the deescalatory decision to have Tsai meet McCarthy on US soil instead of Taiwan. McCarthy had wanted to repeat Pelosi’s visit, but this did not appeal to Tsai and her government. Taiwan authorities said the location of the meeting had diluted its impact.
The meeting was also treated with extreme caution by the Biden administration, whose officials did not meet Tsai. McCarthy, not known to be “naturally careful”, understood the tensions and consulted heavily with the White House to ensure the meeting was bipartisan and not domestically political, said Glaser.
Beijing’s muted response could also be due to the presence of some senior international visitors to Beijing this week, including the French president, Emmanuel Macron, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and Taiwan’s former president Ma Ying-jeou. In the last week Xi has also welcomed the leaders of Spain, Malaysia and Singapore.
Having Macron and Von der Leyen in Beijing as Tsai met McCarthy may have had an immediate dampening effect on Beijing’s conduct, but there is also a broader sense that Xi and his officials are trying to repair ties with the global community, while also driving a wedge between the rest of the west and the US.
“The last time, when Pelosi went to Taiwan, a lot of countries criticised the US,” said Glaser. “But then [after Beijing launched the drills] they said China overreacted and caused a lot of tension, that even though Pelosi shouldn’t have gone, the one who’s really responsible is Beijing. If China learned the right lessons they wouldn’t do it again.”
A key reason for the muted response probably lies closer to home. Taiwan is just 10 months away from a presidential election that Beijing wants the opposition to win. The Kuomintang (KMT) promotes friendlier ties with China as a way to keep the peace, and accuses Tsai’s DPP of bringing Taiwan closer to conflict with its US-focused efforts.
“Beijing is trying to influence Taiwan’s politics,” said Glaser. “I think the Chinese were fearful that if they react too much they will hurt the KMT.”
Tsai’s trip and the associated drama, which began with Honduras switching allegiance to Beijing, topped news bulletins every day this week. In restaurants across the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, workers watched images of the Shandong aircraft carrier – including a Chinese state media live stream from its bow – on wall-mounted TVs as they ate. In the comment pages and talkshows the two major parties declared themselves the safer operators and sniped across the aisle.
As Tsai toured the US, Guatemala and Belize, the KMT’s former president Ma Ying-jeou went to China, on a mission to bolster people-to-people exchanges and cross-strait relations. The duelling foreign visits provided a clear delineation between the different approaches for relations.
In social media debate, most appeared to support Tsai, with some calling Ma “a puppet of China”. Many said that both served a purpose: Tsai was bolstering Taiwan’s international standing while Ma worked to calm things down. A small Next Media online poll found more than 60% didn’t support either visit.
A leading political pundit, Akio Yaita, declared Tsai’s trip a success and said Ma probably only won support from the small faction of people who support unification. Another, Yang Zhao, suspected Tsai met McCarthy to get a reaction out of the CCP, hoping that it would prompt anger among Taiwan’s people.
The behaviour of Beijing does appear to be driving Taiwan’s people further away. A large majority of people in Taiwan oppose Chinese rule, and a growing majority identify as Taiwanese only. But consistent polling shows there is also scepticism of the US. A recent survey by Academica Sinica reportedly found 56% of respondents did not view the US as credible.
Glaser said US officials were only just starting to realise that the strengthening of government ties had not “trickled down” to the people in Taiwan.
Beijing has exploited the mistrust, including through propaganda capitalising on the US’s disastrous exit from Afghanistan, and the spread of disinformation claiming the US intended to destroy Taiwan.
On Friday Ma returned to Taiwan. Tsai is expected to arrive on Saturday. As Macron and Von der Leyen also depart, the world is watching China and Taiwan closely.
Lu, who also spent two decades working in China, said it was important that Taiwan’s people were remembered and heard during the geopolitical posturing, and that bilateral interactions like Tsai’s US trip were “normalised”.
“We’re used to hearing Taiwan talked about through the US-China lens only. So [it’s significant] to have the president come and visit and to have actual Taiwanese people and voices have space to share their thoughts as well.”
Chi Hui Lin contributed to this report
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