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Taiwan's president visits the U.S. amid fraught China relations


Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is expected to meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy this week in California. Last year, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan caused a major escalation in tensions between the U.S. and China, so the big question is whether another meeting with another House speaker will make things even worse. China sees the self-governing island democracy as a part of China, and it's warned of consequences if any U.S. officials meet with Taiwan's president. Jessica Chen Weiss is a professor of China and Asia-Pacific studies at Cornell University, and she joins us now to talk about how this visit by Taiwan's president will impact the already-fraught relations between Washington and Beijing. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JESSICA CHEN WEISS: Thanks for having me.

DETROW: Let's just give some of the context here. Why does China view this meeting as a provocation?

CHEN WEISS: China objects to any form of high-level contact between the United States and Taiwan because to China, looks like the United States is on the cusp of restoring official diplomatic relations, which we ceased as a condition of normalizing relations with China in the late 1970s. And so the sitting speaker in this case, Kevin McCarthy, his meeting with President Tsai again suggests that the United States is moving, at least in Beijing's eyes, toward a policy of supporting Taiwan's permanent separation or even independence.

DETROW: I mean, there's been a lot of dynamics that have increased tension. I mean, among other things, President Biden - I cover the White House, and I have repeatedly covered him committing in the moment to U.S. defense of Taiwan if China were to invade. And then the White House says, oh, he didn't really mean it. He didn't change the policy. Then he says it again and again and again, and that clearly has made an impact here. But amid all of the various dynamics, how big of a deal was Pelosi's visit to Taiwan last year?

CHEN WEISS: Pelosi's visit was really significant. You know, it was the first time that a sitting speaker had visited in, like, 25 years, and it occasioned the most aggressive Chinese military response that we have seen in and around Taiwan to date and in particular, Chinese PLA, People's Liberation Army, no longer sort of respecting that sort of median line down the center of the Taiwan Strait and regularly moving across it. And so while this was not a dress rehearsal for an invasion, it nonetheless further eroded the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. And I think it's going to be hard for Beijing to not respond to this interaction between the anticipated meeting between Speaker McCarthy and President Tsai because they fear that if they don't act to deter what they see as creeping moves toward independence, then they will just invite even further provocations.

DETROW: Given what's happened in the past, what sort of military response do you expect after Tsai and McCarthy meet?

CHEN WEISS: I hope that it's not much more than we have seen, which is, again, these largely symbolic maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait. You might see further incursions into Taiwan's air defense identification zone. Hopefully, this will be a small, not significant response. And I think that the Chinese government does need to, you know, thread the needle between registering their displeasure and provoking some kind of full-blown crisis because they still face a lot of challenges at home, you know, domestically, in the economy.

DETROW: What's the value of these meetings to Tsai in Taiwan to risk this provocation?

CHEN WEISS: Well, look. I think Taiwan feels increasingly isolated on the international stage as, you know, Beijing, ever since Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, you know, has increasingly stolen Taiwan's diplomatic allies, has increased its campaign of economic and military coercion. And so for Taiwan, you know, important purpose of this kind of international travel is to rally support. And it was - think it was important that, you know, Tsai emphasized that this support should be economic, not just military, and that, you know, a key aspect of bolstering Taiwan's resilience to coercion from mainland China, you know, runs through increasing economic partnership and other kinds of ties that would make the island more vibrant and robust to Chinese intimidation.

DETROW: If it were up to you, what would you recommend that both the U.S. and China do in this moment to kind of lower the temperature here?

CHEN WEISS: So it's critical that both Beijing, Washington and Taipei find ways to lower the temperature, not just rhetorically, although that's an important step, but also in terms of finding ways mutually back from the brink by reducing and setting guardrails in terms of the actions that each side is taking, that, frankly, is contributing to this escalatory action-reaction spiral. And that's difficult. But there's really no substitute if we want to avert what I see as an avoidable crisis or conflict that is looming, especially over Taiwan but also in the whole variety of domains where we see increasing pressure on international system, international institutions that are no longer operating effectively because the United States and China are at loggerheads. So finding ways not - to lower the temperature will also, I think, create more space politically and time and attention resources to tackling shared challenges like the green energy transition and climate change.

DETROW: Jessica Chen Weiss is a professor of China and Asia-Pacific Studies at Cornell University. Thanks so much for joining us.

CHEN WEISS: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.