SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. hosted a closely-watched and carefully-orchestrated bipartisan meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Wednesday that has jump started a conversation about deepening economic ties with Taipei and speeding weapons sales to the island.
“We live in a decisive moment in history and must act with urgency,” McCarthy said at a press conference after the hours-long talks, which mostly took place behind closed doors.
Lawmakers emerged from the meeting here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library with a stated bipartisan goal of strengthening the unofficial ties the U.S. has with Taiwan, at a time the island is facing growing pressure from China in the form of military drills, trade restrictions and propaganda.
“The CCP is trying to isolate them every which way around the world,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., the ranking member on the new China select committee, told reporters, using an acronym for China’s ruling Communist Party. “So this was a huge, in my opinion, exclamation point on how bipartisan the depth of support is on both sides for strengthening the Taiwan relationship.”
Taiwanese officials raised concerns to lawmakers who recently visited the island about delays in weapon deliveries as both sides look to deter a Chinese invasion. Taiwan is waiting for shipments of billions in armaments like Harpoon anti-ship missiles and F-16 fighter jets, a snag U.S. officials have blamed on various industry challenges and supply chain issues.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., who chairs the China select committee, said he wants the Biden administration to do more to prioritize the shipments over those promised to other countries.
“The Saudis are ahead of the Taiwanese in the priority list. I’m sort of exploring, could we change that,” he told reporters after Wednesday’s meeting.
Krishnamoorthi complimented the Biden administration for its weapon sales to Taiwan, but said more could be done to address the bottlenecks, which are a concern among Democratic leadership as well.
Other lawmakers said that economic issues took precedence, with Tsai seeking more cooperation with the U.S. and other nations in order to reduce its reliance on China, which claims Taiwan as its territory. The U.S. and Taiwan are discussing a bilateral trade agreement, but Taiwan was left out of a broader trade framework with the U.S. and countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
“Our shared goal here between Taiwan and the United States is deterrence,” said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. “The reason she talked about economic issues so much is she believes that it’s not just about military deterrence, it’s about economic deterrence.”
During her own remarks alongside McCarthy, Tsai stressed the importance of U.S. support and warned that “democracy is under threat” without mentioning China specifically.
“It is no secret that today the peace that we have maintained and the democracy which we have worked hard to build are facing unprecedented challenges,” she said.
This meeting was striking for a number of reasons, not the least of them how depoliticized it was. McCarthy notably declined to take questions on former President Trump’s recent indictment. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who visited Taiwan last year, issued a statement praising the event.
I’ve written a lot about the bipartisan appetite in Washington for a tough-on-China policy. Taiwan is a big reason for that unity. Hours after the meeting, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas announced he had landed in Taipei with a bipartisan delegation.
Talk is one thing, though: I’ll be watching to see if there are some concrete results out of this meeting. It’s unclear whether Congress can do all that much about the weapons shipments, beyond putting pressure on the administration to find a way to push them out the door to Taiwan more quickly.
The View From China
China responded angrily to the meeting and vowed a response.
“China expresses strong protest and firm opposition, and will respond resolutely to the wrong move by the U.S. side,” a Chinese embassy spokesperson said in a statement.
It’s unclear how forcefully Beijing will respond. In recent days, China announced it would board and inspect ships in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwanese officials reported on Wednesday that they spotted a Chinese naval fleet headed by an aircraft carrier passing through waters off the island’s Southeast. China fired missiles and staged a blockade exercise when Pelosi visited Taiwan last summer. The White House has downplayed Tsai’s U.S. stops and urged Beijing not to “overreact.”
“It is not our intention to escalate,” McCarthy said when asked whether he was worried about raising tensions with Beijing by having the meeting. “I am the speaker of the House. There is no place that China is going to tell me where I can go or who I can speak to, whether you be foe or whether you be friend. I’m not the general manager of the Houston Rockets.”