With both encounters being preceded by a pattern of leaks that affected the public perceptions of these meetings, it is perhaps predictable that the narratives surrounding the much-anticipated April 2023 meeting between Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and US Speaker Kevin McCarthy have followed a similar course to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022.
The latter’s visit took place after leaks to the Financial Times. In a similar vein, Speaker McCarthy made his wish to visit Taiwan known early on—expressing support for Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan—stating that he hoped to visit Taiwan if he became Speaker of the House. Yet, after the prospect of a McCarthy visit to Taiwan floated, there was again a pattern of leaks to the media that plagued Pelosi’s visit. Most notably, a report by PunchBowl News in January 2023 stated that the Pentagon was preparing for a McCarthy visit to Taiwan.
In part as a consequence of these leaks that preceded these two meetings, domestic and international discourse about the potential outcomes became highly charged in nature. In particular, the Pelosi visit was depicted by many commentators as unnecessarily provocative of China, with many op-eds penned to this effect in major media outlets such as the New York Times and other outlets. Pelosi, for her part, responded through an op-ed released in the Washington Post to explain the reasoning behind her visit. The op-ed served to push back against international media discourse, which had become hyperbolic about the potential outcomes of the visit and prevailingly supported the view that the visit accomplished little but would lead to a strong response from China. Considering that if Pelosi’s visit had only been announced after the fact, there would not have been as much prolonged discussion of it, the leaks were certainly part of what led to the media firestorm on the visit—however this also set the pattern for the McCarthy-Tsai meeting afterward.
US-Skeptic Narratives in Taiwan’s Domestic Discourse
Despite initially planning to meet in Taipei, McCarthy was eventually persuaded to meet with Tsai in his home state of California—during a stopover by Tsai on the way to visit Central American allies of Taiwan—after the Taiwanese government shared intelligence with McCarthy about a potential Chinese response. McCarthy has stated that he does not rule out a future visit to Taiwan down the line, but the relocation of the meeting between him and Tsai to California was a clear attempt by Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) to dial back tensions. Certainly, the Tsai Administration does not want to give China pretext to rehearse a blockade or invasion in a way that increases overall regional tensions, nor does it want to be seen as willing to endanger global security for the sake of strengthening ties with the United States.
That McCarthy demurred from visiting Taiwan to instead meet with Tsai in California is interesting, as it is redolent of the narratives surrounding the Pelosi visit. In August 2022, Taiwanese media reported that the Tsai Administration had tried to turn down the visit but was overruled by Pelosi. Such claims came from pan-Blue outlets owned by the Want Want Group (旺旺集團有限公司), such as the China Times (中國時報). This fact is notable because, as the Financial Times reported in 2019, Want Want and its subsidiaries have been known to directly accept editorial input from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO, 國務院台灣事務辦公室)—an accusation reinforced by Apple Daily’s reports that Want Want accepted funds from China.
Although the veracity of such claims about the Pelosi visit are unknown, this was an early instance of the US-skeptic discourse (疑美論) increasingly pushed by the pan-Blue camp. In recent months, pan-Blue commentators have cast doubt on everything from sales of US Volcano landmines to Taiwan, munitions stockpiles for US forces in Taiwan in the event of a Taiwan contingency, or semiconductor cooperation between the United States and Taiwan.
Regardless of sharp rhetoric directed against China on other occasions, McCarthy’s apparent willingness to listen to input from the Tsai Administration may be reassuring in relation to US politicians not placing Taiwan in the line of fire in pursuit of domestic politicking. Likewise, while McCarthy could have politicized his visit along partisan lines and attacked Democrats as weak on China, McCarthy opted to frame the meeting as bipartisan in nature, seeing as his delegation included members of both parties.
Chinese Responses to the Tsai-McCarthy Meeting
Following the Tsai-McCarthy meeting, China has reacted much as it did before, by conducting another set of military drills. Assessments vary as to whether these drills are a step up from the post-Pelosi drills or not. While they took place further from Taiwan compared to the post-Pelosi drills, they also set new records in terms of air incursions by Chinese warplanes. Certainly, the three-day duration of the drills was shorter than the post-Pelosi live-fire exercises, and there was not as much international coverage of the exercises compared to those of August 2022. This was probably because this was no longer an unprecedented event and because of the shorter timeframe. Additionally, the drills took place over Easter weekend. Since then, China has announced that it intends to set up a no-fly zone 85 nautical miles north of Taiwan from April 16-18.
In the wake of these exercises, it seems that a clear script has now been written regarding how China will react to meetings between Taiwanese presidents and US House Speakers. It remains to be seen whether more of these meetings will take place in the future if China continues to respond in this way—with the DPP in particular needing to avoid the public perception that it is willing to risk Taiwan’s security by conducting meetings with US elected politicians. Even as there have increasingly been calls for routinizing meetings between US and Taiwanese officials in recent years—despite the fact that Tsai did not actually meet with any Biden Administration officials during her trip—meetings between US and Taiwanese elected politicians are clearly of a different sensitivity.
Divides in Public Opinion Could Become More Divided
Polling at the time of Pelosi’s visit indicated that the Taiwanese public viewed the Pelosi visit as reassuring about the strength of US-Taiwan ties and public opinion polls following the visit indicate divided views. A Global View Magazine poll from September 2022 showed that 55.5 percent of respondents thought that the Pelosi visit did not help Taiwan’s international position, while 42.8 percent thought it did. Additionally, 59.3 percent of businesses thought the visit had benefits, while 38.2 percent did not. Yet, the prominence of US-skeptic discourse is increasingly highlighted in commentary ahead of the 2024 elections and has only grown since the Pelosi visit.
While public response to the Tsai-McCarthy meeting has been more positive, it could still change. Polling by the pan-Green-leaning Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation in April suggests support for the Tsai-McCarthy meeting, with around 61 percent approving of the meeting and 11.7 percent disapproving of it. Yet, views of the meeting could potentially shift, as observed in polling conducted by the Brookings Institute about views of the Pelosi visit in September 2022 and January 2023 showing that views about the visit may have increasingly divided along partisan lines. As the elections near, it is likely that US-skeptic discourse will continue to grow in prominence, with pan-Blue politicians framing the DPP as a party of warmongers intent on provoking China through strengthening ties with the United States.
In this sense, what will play a key role in Taiwanese political discourse before the 2024 elections will be the ex post facto framing of the Tsai-McCarthy meeting. The KMT will likely frame China’s military drills as causally linked to the meeting in an effort to depict the DPP as a party of warmongers while continuing to lean into US-skeptic discourse. Conversely, it is likely to frame itself as the party of peace—the latest version of the KMT’s traditional claim that it is the only party in Taiwan able to maintain stable cross-Strait relations. The KMT may also draw on comments by French President Emmanuel Macron or other western politicians raising questions regarding the advisability of aligning with the United States.
As such, it is still unclear how the echoes of the Tsai-McCarthy meeting will play out in election campaigning for both major political camps. Much like the Pelosi visit, the Tsai-McCarthy meeting has effectively cemented precedents—both in the manner in which China responds, and the narratives that domestic and international commentators push. However, the aftermath of the Pelosi visit did not play a major role in the 2022 local elections, whose outcome was determined more by voting on the basis of local political issues rather than cross-Strait ones. This may not necessarily be the case with the Tsai-McCarthy meeting, seeing as cross-Strait issues loom larger in presidential and legislative elections. This remains to be seen.
The main point: The Tsai-McCarthy meeting continued many of the important dynamics of the Pelosi visit. Most significantly, it will be leveraged in domestic political discourse by the pan-Blue camp to further advance US-skeptic discourse that began around the time of the Pelosi visit.