U.S. Speaker meets Taiwan leader and stresses need to speed up arms deliveries
SIMI VALLEY, California, April 5 (Reuters) - U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy hosted Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in California on Wednesday, becoming the most senior U.S. figure to meet a Taiwanese leader on U.S. soil in decades and stressed the need to accelerate arms deliveries to Taiwan in the face of rising threats from China.
McCarthy - the third highest ranking official in the U.S. leadership hierarchy - and other Republican and Democratic lawmakers met Tsai at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California despite threats of retaliation from China, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as its own.
A China foreign ministry spokesperson quickly denounced the meeting, accusing the United States of colluding with separatists seeking "Taiwan independence" and saying that it has been breaching its commitments over the island.
China considers Taiwan as a breakaway province and has vowed to bring the island under its control by force if necessary.
Maritime authorities in China's Fujian province launched a three-day special patrol and inspection operation in the Taiwan Strait that includes moves to board ships. Taiwan said it had lodged a strong protest with China about the move.
Tsai thanked the U.S. Congress for standing by Taiwan when democracy was under threat and cited former U.S. President Reagan saying that "to preserve peace, we must be strong."
The meeting came at a time of deteriorating U.S.-Chinese relations - the worst since the countries established diplomatic relations in 1979, according to many analysts.
Concerns are rising among Western officials that China, which staged war games around the island last August following a visit by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, could attempt to take Taiwan by force in the coming years.
On Wednesday, Taiwan's defense ministry said a Chinese aircraft carrier group was in the waters off the island's southeast coast ahead of the meeting between Tsai and McCarthy.
While Washington has no official relations with Taiwan, it is bound by law to provide the island with the means to defend itself and has stepped up interactions with Taipei in recent years as Beijing's pressure on the island has increased.
Standing with Tsai in front of a blue-and-white Boeing aircraft that Reagan flew on as president in the 1980s, McCarthy called the friendship between the people of Taiwan and America "a matter of profound importance to the free world."
Speaking at a later news conference alongside Republican and Democratic lawmakers who took part in the meeting with Tsai, McCarthy said they had discussed how to speed up weapons deliveries to Taiwan.
"We must continue the arms sales to Taiwan and make sure such sales reach Taiwan on a very timely basis," he said, adding that he believed there was bipartisan agreement on this. "Second, we must strengthen our economic cooperation, particularly with trade and technology."
Mike Gallagher, Republican chairman of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, said after the meeting he would like to look for ways get Harpoon anti-ship missiles to Taiwan ahead of those scheduled to go to Saudi Arabia.
U.S. officials say weapons such as the Harpoon missile are far more important for Taiwan's defense than the heavy weaponry, including tanks and aircraft, that the island's military has traditionally purchased from the United States.
At a news conference in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there was nothing new in Tsai's transits and such stops were "private" and "unofficial."
"Beijing should not use the transit as an excuse to take any actions to ratchet up tensions, to further push it changing the status quo," he said.
Supporters waving Taiwanese flags and pro-Taiwan and Hong Kong banners chanted "Jiayou Taiwan" - the equivalent of "Go Taiwan" - outside the Reagan Library. A small plane flew overhead towing a pro-Beijing banner saying "One China! Taiwan is part of China!"
China repeatedly warned against the meeting between McCarthy and Tsai, who is on her first U.S. stopover since 2019, although some analysts expect its reaction to be more moderate than that to Pelosi's Taipei visit.
February saw the dramatic shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon that drifted over U.S. territory and Xu Xueyuan, charge d’affaires at China's Washington embassy, said last week McCarthy meeting Tsai "could lead to another serious confrontation in the China-U.S. relationship."
The California meeting was seen as a potentially less provocative alternative to McCarthy visiting Taiwan, something he has said he hopes to do.
McCarthy said he had no current plans to go to Taiwan, but this did not mean he would not, and China could not tell him where he could go or who he could meet.
China has yet to comment on the carrier group, whose appearance also coincided with the arrival in Beijing of French President Emmanuel Macron.
It has sailed its carriers near Taiwan before and at similarly sensitive times. In March last year, the Shandong sailed through the Taiwan Strait hours before the Chinese and U.S. presidents were due to talk.
Tsai transited through New York last week en route to Central America to visit two of Taiwan's few remaining diplomatic partners, Guatemala and Belize.
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