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  • Writer's pictureIan Murphy

Tsai Ing-Wen’s U.S. Visit and 2024 Taiwan Presidential Elections

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

President Tsai’s Itinerary in the U.S.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen is scheduled to visit the United States in late March, where she will be meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Tsai and McCarthy’s meeting is part of Tsai’s planned transit to Central America, during which she will also visit Los Angeles and New York as part of her itinerary. Tsai’s trip is expected to take place in April and Tsai is said to meet with McCarthy in California where she has been invited to make a public speech at the Reagan Library. Tsai’s first stopover in the U.S. will be New York, where she will be speaking at an event hosted by the Hudson Institute on March 30. She will also be presented with a “global leadership award” from Hudson Institute. Aside from her engagement with the Hudson Institute and her meeting with McCarthy, Tsai will also meet with Taiwanese expatriates during her transit in the United States.

Despite there being no official diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Taiwan, it has been common practice for the U.S. to allow Taiwanese presidents to make stopovers in the U.S. en route to Central America. This year, Tsai’s U.S. transit takes place in connection with her planned visits to Guatemala and Belize in April. U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price explained that transits by high-ranking Taiwanese officials “are consistent with longstanding U.S. policy and with our unofficial and strong relations with Taiwan,” suggesting that the United States does not view these delegations as breaking the One China Policy.

In March 2019, Tsai also made a stopover in U.S. soil prior to returning to Taiwan after visiting Palau, Nauru, and the Marshall Islands. At the time, Tsai attended the first-ever Pacific Women Leaders' Coalition Conference, which was held in Palau on March 26 to 27, 2019. She also delivered a speech before the Parliament of Nauru.

Moreover, when she was still a presidential candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Tsai visited the White House to meet with then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Asia Evan Medeiros in June 2015. Tsai’s trip made her the first Taiwanese presidential candidate to have been allowed to visit the White House. This privilege was not granted to other presidential candidates, including former President Ma Ying-jeou who, during his term as Mayor of Taipei mayor and Kuomintang (KMT) chairman, was not allowed to visit the White House in 2006. The same also happened to former DPP chairman Frank Hsieh who wanted to visit the White House as a Taiwanese presidential candidate in 2007 but was denied.

McCarthy has confirmed his meeting with Tsai in the U.S. and clarified that their meeting will not take place in lieu of his planned visit to Taiwan this year. The House Speaker stressed that his plan to visit Taiwan is still in consideration, contrary to reports that Tsai’s U.S. trip will replace McCarthy’s visit to Taiwan in order to appease China. “That has nothing to do with my travel and if I would go to Taiwan or not,” McCarthy explained. “China can’t tell me where and when I can go.”

Details about what Tsai and McCarthy will discuss during their meeting has not been revealed by either party. However, it is likely that the two leaders will continue with discussions on building stronger bilateral ties between the U.S. and Taiwan. “At present, various departments are communicating and preparing for relevant plans, and the planning of the related itinerary will be explained in a timely manner after the plan is finalized,” Taiwan’s presidential office said in a statement.

Impact on U.S.-Taiwan-China Relations

The announcement of Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy in the U.S. is being met with strong opposition from China. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said they had extended communications with the U.S. to clarify the extent and purpose of McCarthy’s meeting with Tsai. China has strongly been against any form of official correspondence between the U.S. and Taiwan, calling it an affront to the One China Policy and consequently a threat to national security.

"No one should underestimate the strong determination of the Chinese government and people to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity." Mao said, adding that separatist forces calling for Taiwan’s independence is the “real threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

The U.S. and China’s relationship has soured since the U.S. discovered and later shot a surveillance balloon hovering over its territory, which is said to have been deployed by China. Beijing has since denied allegations about its involvement in a worldwide surveillance program and condemned the U.S. decision to shoot down the balloon. “To have dispatched an advanced fighter jet to shoot down a balloon with a missile, such behavior is unbelievable, almost hysterical,” Chinese top diplomat Wang Yi said. The U.S. maintains that the balloon was conducting “intelligence collection operations” and is therefore a real and imminent threat to national security.

How Will the DPP’s Election Bid be Affected by the Visit?

Taiwan’s presidential elections will take place on January 13, 2024. After the elections, Tsai will end her second and final term in May of the same year. 2024 presidential candidates are expected to address Taiwan’s long-term security , disinformation campaigns, and the possibility of facing military conflict with Taiwan. On these two points, Taiwan’s relationship with the U.S. remains a relevant concern for candidates who may want to strike a balance between fostering close bilateral ties with the U.S. without provoking China.

As the DPP is expected to back the current Vice President, Lai Ching-te, he is expected to follow in the footsteps of Tsai. Lai has pledged to protect Taiwan from Chinese aggression and ensure peace and order in the Taiwan Strait. Speaking at the DPP headquarters as he announced his candidacy, Lai called for unity between political parties in strengthening Taiwan as the self-governing island faces “China's verbal and military threats, diplomatic suppression through unscrupulous means and the various threats of their double strategy of wanting peace and playing war.”

The DPP’s stance to protect Taiwan’s democracy against China was crucial in the party’s success in the 2020 elections. As Tsai announced bolder measures against China earlier this year, the DPP was ahead of the KMT in a poll conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation. From this, it is evident that relations with the U.S. and deterring China’s advances will remain key issues in the lead up to the elections.

“For any Taiwanese presidential candidate, backing from the U.S. government is consequential,” Jonathan Sullivan, Taiwan politics expert at the University of Nottingham, said. “[the U.S.] view of presidential contenders sends a signal to voters about the perceived ability to manage Taiwan’s two most important bilateral relationships, with China and with the U.S.”

Other Presidential Candidates Announce U.S. Delegation

Former Taipei Mayor and current head of Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) Ko Wen-je is also expected to visit the U.S. as he runs for president. Ko will be visiting Washington DC beginning April 8 this year to speak to lawmakers and think tanks as he embarks on his presidential campaign. TPP Secretary-General Tom Chou said that they are currently arranging meetings with lawmakers and clarified that Ko’s visit will not overlap with Tsai’s visit to the U.S. in the same month. Chou added that Ko’s itinerary will include stops in New York, Washington DC, Boston, and Houston. He is also expected to visit the Department of State, an academic institution, as well as several biomedical companies.

Ko already visited the United States Department of State on March 19, 2019, where he had a closed door meeting with Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Asia Pacific Affairs Hanscom Smith, Managing Director of the Washington Office of the American Institute in Taiwan John J. Norris Jr., and Deputy Director of the State Department's Office of Taiwan Coordination Daniel K. Delk. During his trip, Ko discussed the central theme of Taipei 2017 Universiade, protecting and upholding the universal principles of freedom and democracy. His meeting with key U.S. officials reaffirmed both the U.S. and Taiwan’s commitment to advancing those values and ensuring better communication and exchange between both parties in order to foster stable cooperation.

There have been reports that arrangements for Ko’s visit to the U.S. in April 2023 as a Taiwanese presidential candidate has run into several problems. Allegedly, officials in Washington refused to meet with Ko due to concerns about his friendly relationship with China. Ko has denied such claims, saying that preparations for his 21-day trip to the U.S. are going smoothly.

Ko’s TPP has positioned itself in the middle of the DPP’s strong stance on Taiwanese sovereignty and the KMT’s stance that favors closer ties with China. “We want to use this opportunity to exchange views with the U.S. side, about Chairman Ko's views on diplomacy or relations with China going forward,” Chou said about Ko’s planned visit to the United States.

Ko’s seeming pro-China stance has been widely criticized and debated, so much so that the Taiwanese Association of America even refused to meet with him when went to the U.S. in March 2019. During the same period, Ko was also allegedly invited to meet with Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and that he had previously met with Glaser in Taiwan. Both parties denied the reports, to which Glaser explained that a staff member of Ko approached a leading U.S. think tank to engage in closed-door meetings but that it was not CSIS.

Moreover, during his visit to Shanghai in 2017, Ko drew criticism when he said that China and Taiwan belong to “one family”. Relatedly, the uncertainties and inconsistencies in Ko’s stance on China was seen in his interview with Foreign Policy, published on January 29, 2015. Ko appeared to view colonization more favorably, stating that “the longer the colonization, the more advanced a place is.” With respect to Taiwan-China relations, he said that “cooperation is more important than reunification” and that “a free and democratic Taiwan is more in China’s interest than reunification.”

Outside of the U.S., Ko was also embroiled in a gaffe after making a joke about receiving a watch as a gift from British transport minister Baroness Susan Kramer in January 2015. Kramer, at the time, was unaware of the Taiwanese superstition that giving clocks or watches as presents signal bad luck. In response to the gift, Ko told reporters that he would sell the watch to a scrap metal dealer for some money since it would be “useless” to him. Shortly after, Ko apologized for his statement, admitting that it was “inappropriate from the diplomatic protocol and etiquette perspective.”

As Taiwan prepares for the 2024 presidential elections, both international and domestic audiences will be paying close attention to the DPP and TPP delegations to the United States. Taiwan has a lot to gain from its relationship with the United States in the realm of mutual trade and commerce and military deterrence through arms transfers. Observers of President Tsai and Mayor Ko’s trips should be on the look out for deepening economic and security ties, which can shape the 2024 landscape regardless of the election’s outcomes.


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