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Taiwan's president plans a U.S. visit with an eye on China tensions

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As U.S.-China relations continue to crater, Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, will visit New York and Southern California next month, where she plans to meet House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. That is a big change of plans. Originally, McCarthy was reportedly planning his own travels to the island. We're joined now by NPR's Emily Feng, who is in Taipei. Hey, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. So first, can you just briefly explain why a U.S. congressional visit to Taiwan, especially one from the speaker of the House, would be kind of a big deal?

FENG: It all goes back to China. China thinks Taiwan is its own territory, so it does not like it when U.S officials visit the island and treat Taiwan like it's a country. That's why, when former Speaker Nancy Pelosi went to Taiwan last year, China reacted by putting on days of military exercises around the island. And despite these threats at that time, people in Taiwan actually welcomed these U.S. visits. I spoke to Lev Nachman about this. He's a political science professor at National Chengchi University here in Taipei. And interestingly, he points out that public opinion perceptions toward the U.S. were actually down because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And people in Taiwan were watching the U.S. response, seeing the U.S. send money and weapons to Ukraine but not troops.

LEV NACHMAN: I think there was some shock that, you know, troops weren't sent or that there wasn't an even stronger outward show of support. But after the Nancy Pelosi visit, that completely changed. And then attitudes towards the United States have gone way back up.

FENG: And now this year, congressional visits are happening all the time to Taiwan. But with U.S.-China relations so bad right now, the idea that a second House speaker might come to Taiwan has put the island in a really difficult position.

CHANG: OK. Tell us more about that. What do you mean by a difficult position?

FENG: Well, first of all, Taiwan's going into a presidential election year just like the U.S. And here on the island, both major political parties were really nervous about a McCarthy visit because it's just a level of unpredictability you don't want to inject into domestic politics during an election year. And then second, Taiwan's defense chief warned this week that Beijing is looking for any excuse, like a high-profile U.S. visit to the island, to step up military aggression towards Taiwan. I spoke to Amanda Hsiao, who is a Taiwan analyst here in Taipei with the International Crisis Group, and she talked to me about the costs and benefits of these U.S. visits to Taiwan. She says they're beneficial symbolically because they give Taiwan more diplomatic weight, but the risks they also bring are way more concrete.

AMANDA HSIAO: The issue, though, is right now, those visits, they're not actually producing concrete benefits. So there are certainly benefits in the symbolic realm, but they haven't turned into concrete things like an economic agreement or more security assurances.

FENG: But here's where Taiwan is in a difficult position. It does not want to publicly turn down a U.S. visit and make it look like bullying from China is working. And Taiwan needs all the friends it can make, so it doesn't feel like it can say no to these U.S. visits, even when it gives Beijing an excuse to pile on more military pressure.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you, Emily, is it kind of a concession then for President Tsai to travel to the U.S. to see McCarthy instead of McCarthy flying to Taiwan to see her?

FENG: First of all, McCarthy has not ruled out that he might make another visit on top of Tsai's visit to the U.S. for him to go to Taiwan in the future. So that's still possible. Tsai's visit to the U.S. also could be a signal to Beijing that Taiwan is willing right now to de-escalate tensions after months of pretty consistent military hostility. Because sitting in Taiwan now, there are Chinese planes and ships coming close to Taiwan's waters basically every day now. And that was not happening before House Speaker - former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit. In general, this is a pretty smart solution for Taiwan. They've used these U.S. visits in the past to find a middle ground. And right now, both sides, the U.S. and Taiwan, are trying to find some compromise. But it really depends now on how Beijing is going to respond and also what President Tsai says on her visit when she goes to the U.S.

CHANG: That is NPR's Emily Feng in Taipei. Thank you, Emily.

FENG: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.