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Taiwan's president meets House Speaker Kevin McCarthy despite Chinese protests

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Here in California, the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, sat down with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy today. It's a meeting that the Chinese government had tried to keep from happening, warning of retaliation. But the meeting went ahead, and other members of Congress attended, too.

NPR's John Ruwitch is in Simi Valley, just north of LA, where the meeting took place. And he joins us now. John, I understand that this meeting happened at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. What was said?

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Yeah. The conversation ran a couple of hours, and they made some brief comments afterward. Tsai, president of Taiwan, said that she was very grateful for the meeting and for U.S. help in protecting Taiwan's way of life or helping protect Taiwan's way of life. You know, remember, Taiwan's a democracy. It's self-governed. It's off the east coast of China. Beijing thinks it's part of China and wants to bring it back into the fold and has threatened force to do so if necessary.

You know, Taiwan has very few diplomatic allies. The U.S. is not one of them, but it's Taiwan's most important partner and a source of military aid. And Tsai said that this meeting really reassures the people of Taiwan that they're not isolated. You know, of course, she's mindful that China's not happy about this meeting and says things like this send the wrong signal about Taiwan independence. Tsai said Taiwan is committed to defending, quote, "the peaceful status quo." But here's what she said after that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT TSAI ING-WEN: To preserve peace, we must be strong. I would like to add that we are stronger when we are together.

RUWITCH: You also want to add that this is a - the meeting is very controversial. Right here at the library, there were dueling protesters - supporters of Taiwan, supporters of China. There was even a propeller plane flying circles overhead with a banner that said, one China; Taiwan is part of China.

FLORIDO: And what did Speaker McCarthy have to say today?

RUWITCH: After the meeting, McCarthy - he chose his words pretty carefully. But he and Tsai did appear to be pretty much on the same page. You know, he committed to the idea of deepening ties with Taiwan and accelerating arms deliveries to Taiwan, deter aggression from China. He was asked about, you know, the possibility of an attack, the imminence of an attack or invasion from China. And here's what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: We advocate that that day never comes. And if we've learned anything from Ukraine, there's actions that could have been taken five years ago - so Ukraine never had. Deterring that action to take place would have saved thousands of lives. I think today is a part of that.

FLORIDO: So, John, what is our best guess about how China is going to react?

RUWITCH: We don't know. You know, last August, when Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker, went to Taiwan, China staged unprecedented drills that surrounded Taiwan, had launched missiles over Taiwan. It cut dialogue with the United States. You know, this meeting in California was an attempt to almost mollify Beijing in a way. McCarthy had been talking about making a trip to Taiwan. And today, he repeated a line that he said a few times that China doesn't get to dictate where he travels, but he did say that he does not have plans to travel to Taiwan at present.

You know, China has let it be known that it didn't want this meeting to happen, and it's threatened to retaliate. There's been some military activity around Taiwan, near Taiwan, in recent days. State TV said there was a joint patrol inspection of some kind in the northern part of the Taiwan Strait. Here's Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund in Washington.

BONNIE GLASER: The Chinese should be relieved that McCarthy is not going to Taiwan. But there could be a perception in Beijing that they have to up the ante and they have to - if they want to be taken seriously by the United States and by Taiwan; that they can't look soft.

FLORIDO: So what comes next, John?

RUWITCH: Well, the ball's in Beijing's court, really. I mean, the rhetoric in the lead up certainly looks like they'll engage in some drills or something along those lines. You know, Beijing no doubt has a menu of options that they're looking at about how they might respond. If Beijing does take action, though, on a similar scale to what it did when Pelosi visited Taiwan that is, you know, some analysts say that may raise questions in Taipei and Washington, you know, about whether or not the Chinese government really has any interest in dialing down tensions at this time.

FLORIDO: That's NPR's John Ruwitch in Simi Valley, Calif. Thanks, John.

RUWITCH: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.