(CNN) Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen delivered a dire warning that “democracy is under threat” as she met with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday in California, a highly anticipated event that marked a show of democratic solidarity in defiance of threats from China.
Tsai gathered with McCarthy and a bipartisan group of US lawmakers at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California’s Simi Valley. The landmark meeting is the second time Tsai has met with an American lawmaker of that rank in the space of a year, following a visit from then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August. Tsai is also the first president of Taiwan to meet with a US House speaker on American soil.
“It is no secret that today the peace we have maintained and the democracy which (we) have worked hard to build are facing unprecedented challenges,” Tsai said in remarks alongside McCarthy. “We once again find ourselves in a world where democracy is under threat and the urgency of keeping the beacon of freedom shining cannot be understated.”
The meeting gave both Tsai and McCarthy a prominent platform to highlight US-Taiwan ties.
“The friendship between the people of Taiwan and America is a matter of profound importance to the free world. It is critical to maintain economic freedom, peace and regional stability,” McCarthy said.
“We’re stronger when we are together,” Tsai said. “In our efforts to protect our way of life, Taiwan is grateful to have the United States by our side.”
The meeting prompted an angry statement from Beijing, with a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry saying that “China firmly opposes and strongly condemns it.”
“In response to the egregiously wrong action taken by the United States and Taiwan, China will take strong and resolute measures to defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the statement added, urging the US to “stop containing China by exploiting the Taiwan issue” and “not go further down the wrong and dangerous path.”
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul announced Wednesday night that he had led a bipartisan delegation to Taiwan to meet business leaders and government officials.
Earlier Wednesday, ahead of the meeting between Tsai and McCarthy, China dispatched several maritime vessels near Taiwan’s coast.
On Wednesday morning local time, Beijing sent a “large scale patrol and rescue vessel” to the central and northern Taiwan Strait for a three-day “joint patrol and inspection” operation, China’s Fujian Maritime Safety Administration said in a statement. On Wednesday evening, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said it had tracked a Chinese aircraft carrier group, led by the carrier Shandong, passing through waters southeast of Taiwan for training in the Western Pacific.
At a news conference following his meeting with Taiwan’s president, McCarthy indicated that China won’t dictate who he speaks with or where he goes, but said it’s “not our intention to escalate” tensions with Beijing.
Asked what his message is to China amid threats of retaliation over the meeting, McCarthy said, “I am the speaker of the House. There’s no place that China is going to tell me where I can go or who I can speak to.” He also said, “there’s no need for retaliation.”
McCarthy said, “No, it is not our intention to escalate,” when asked if he is concerned that the meeting would escalate tensions with Beijing.
The Defense Department has not sent any additional assets to the Indo-Pacific region in preparation for any aggressive response by China, a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters Wednesday.
In response to Pelosi’s visit last summer, Beijing launched extensive military drills around the democratic, self-governing island and suspended several lines of communication with Washington — raising concerns over the response to Tsai’s sit-down with McCarthy on Wednesday, even though this meeting took place in the US.
Tsai’s delegation made a planned stopover in California following official visits to Taiwan’s diplomatic allies Guatemala and Belize — part of a 10-day tour to shore up Taipei’s overseas relationships amid increasing pressure from Beijing.
China’s Consulate General in Los Angeles condemned the anticipated meeting with McCarthy as “not conducive to regional peace, security and stability,” warning it would “undermine the political foundation” of China-US relations.
“We will closely follow the development of the situation and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the consulate said in a Monday statement — one of multiple condemnations from Chinese officials in recent weeks as reports of the meeting emerged.
China’s Communist Party claims the self-governing democracy as its own despite never having controlled it, and has vowed to take the island, by force if necessary.
Tsai struck a defiant tone when setting out on her international tour late last month, telling reporters that “external pressure” wouldn’t stop Taiwan from connecting with the world and like-minded democracies.
On Tuesday, the island’s foreign ministry called repeated Chinese criticisms of her travel “increasingly absurd and unreasonable.”
“Taiwan will not back down, and friends in the US who support Taiwan and Taiwan-US relations will not back down either. Democratic partners will only become more united and have more frequent exchanges,” the statement said.
A major moment for McCarthy and Tsai
A source close to McCarthy told CNN the meeting was an important moment for the speaker, who has made creating a select committee on China one of his top priorities and views the US relationship with China as a central issue of our time.
Wednesday’s meeting included Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, who is a member of the Democratic leadership, and other US congressional lawmakers.
Tsai’s stopovers in the US, which included transit in New York last week, also come amid heightened tensions between the US and China.
The two powers have struggled to stabilize their relationship amid friction over issues from tech security to a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon downed over the US.
House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries released a statement on Wednesday saying that he met with Tsai last week during her transit through New York city.
“We had a very productive conversation about the mutual security and economic interests between America and Taiwan. We also discussed our shared commitment to democracy and freedom,” Jeffries said in a statement.
Tsai also met with three US senators last week in New York. Republican Sens. Joni Ernst and Dan Sullivan and Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly all met with Tsai, according to sources familiar with the meeting. The Wall Street Journal first reported these meetings.
Reaction from China
Last week Beijing’s top envoy in the US threatened that Tsai’s presence in American cities could lead to “serious” confrontation in the relationship.
“Beijing may feel it needs to escalate because this would be another US speaker meeting with Tsai within less than a year of the prior meeting. China likely seeks to prevent the United States from normalizing such meetings and to make sure that its actions are strong and painful enough that both the United States and Taiwan understand how opposed China is to such activities,” said Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Other analysts have pointed out, however, that factors such as the meeting’s location in the US and its timing — as China seeks to revamp its diplomacy post-pandemic and months ahead of a presidential election in Taiwan that could reset the tone of its relationship with Beijing — could see China take a less aggressive response compared with last year.
The White House declined to say in advance whether it supported the meeting between McCarthy and Taiwan’s president.
The US maintains an unofficial relationship with Taiwan and Tsai’s transit in the country is therefore not an official visit in order to keep Washington aligned with its longstanding “One China” policy.
Under the policy, the US acknowledges China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never officially recognized Beijing’s claim to the island of 23 million. It is also bound by law to provide the democratic island with the means to defend itself.
Congress has remained a key pillar of that unofficial relationship — with delegations of lawmakers visiting the island and driving legislation enhancing support or coordination in recent years in the face of increasing military, economic and diplomatic pressure on the island from Beijing.
This story and headline have been updated to reflect additional developments.
CNN’s Beijing bureau, Wayne Chang in Hong Kong, Larry Register in Atlanta and Lauren Fox and Manu Raju in Washington contributed to this report.