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China Plays Long Game With Softer Response to Taiwan President Visiting U.S.

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Wearing huge grins and bathed in California sunshine, U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy welcomed Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley on Wednesday, telling assembled reporters that “our bond is stronger now than at any time or point in my lifetime.”

It was a meeting that spurred a collective intake of breath across the Asia-Pacific. China considers self-ruling Taiwan its sovereign territory and abhors any ties it has with foreign officials. When Tsai met McCarthy’s predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, in Taipei last year, Beijing responded with unprecedented military drills, a trade embargo, and diplomatic freeze.

Indeed, China had warned of a “resolute response” to the Simi Valley meeting, which while officially unofficial, was the first of its kind on U.S. soil since Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. The U.S. was “playing with fire” over Taiwan, Xu Xueyuan, chargé d’affaires at Beijing’s embassy in the U.S., told reporters last week.

However, the reality has been more muted. After isolated military exercises on Tuesday, 14 Chinese warplanes and three warships had been spotted near Taiwan on Wednesday, with two entering the southwest of the island’s air defense identification zone. On Thursday, China’s second aircraft carrier, the Shandong, was spotted 200 nautical miles (370 km) off Taiwan’s east coast. It’s nothing compared with the belligerent reaction to Pelosi’s visit, when five days of live-fire drills and missile tests completely encircled Taiwan, some less than 10 miles from its coast.

The shift in messaging is telling and deliberate: firstly, that Tsai’s decision to meet McCarthy in the U.S., rather than Taipei, is less of an affront and therefore requires less of a response; and, by extension, that the islanders have agency in cross-Strait ties. The latter is important as presidential elections approach in January, when how to manage relations with China will dominate campaigning.

“Cross-Strait relations are going to become much more of a front and center issue in Taiwan’s politics,” says Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute think tank.

Tsai is ineligible to stand for a third term. Still, her China-skeptic Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is loathed by Beijing, which would rather see the pro-China Nationalists, or KMT, return to power instead. The last KMT stint before Tsai’s 2016 victory was a time of flourishing ties based on the 1992 Consensus—a political fudge that both Beijing and Taipei agree that they belong to the same country, even if they disagree over which is the legitimate authority. Tsai’s DPP doesn’t recognize the 1992 Consensus, craving formal independence for the island of 23 million, even if it has pragmatically backburned that goal given China vows to respond with invasion.

There’s little question which party’s standpoint better reflects Taiwan’s people. According to a March poll by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF), 78% of islanders describe themselves as Taiwanese, rather than Chinese or some mix. However, fears of war with China are also high—and so the question of identity cannot be separated from that of security. The KMT will try to leverage deteriorating cross-Strait relations to convince voters that they are better placed to safeguard Taiwan’s de facto independence.

A Visit on the Other Side

Some 6,000 miles from Simi Valley, another Taiwan presidential visit of sorts took place this week: that of Ma Ying-jeou, Tsai’s KMT predecessor, who led a honeymoon period of cross-Strait ties from 2008 to 2016, during which he inked 23 trade treaties and opened direct flights, and business and educational exchanges proliferated. On March 27, Ma embarked on an unprecedented 12-day, five-city tour of China, including paying his respect to the graves of ancestors. It’s the first time a former president of Taiwan has ever been invited to the People’s Republic and, while also officially unofficial, included a meeting with the head of China’s Taiwan Affairs office. “We all belong to the Chinese race,” Ma said in Nanjing on March 28.

Ma’s mainland visit has been carefully stage-managed by Beijing to show Taiwan voters that another trajectory for cross-Strait ties is possible under the KMT. To that end, Beijing in recent weeks has lifted import bans on Taiwanese agricultural products and resumed some direct flights across the Strait. The KMT will be keen to contrast this nascent rapprochement to Taiwan’s diminishing international status under Tsai. Since she took office in 2016, the island has lost nine diplomatic allies to Beijing, most recently Honduras on March 26, meaning just 13 remain.

“Ma’s goodwill trip should show that the KMT has the willingness to maintain a stable and peaceful relationship,” says Eric Huang, a KMT adviser and formerly head of the party’s representative office in Washington. “We understand the importance of maintaining Taiwan’s way of life, we understand we need to build up our defenses, but at the same time we see the value and wisdom in communication.”

Taiwan's former President Ma Ying-jeou speaks to journalists before his visit to China from the Taoyuan international airport on March 27, 2023.Sam Yeh—AFP/Getty Images

The DDP’s counterargument is that the 1992 Consensus is a fig leaf for eventual reunification. “Our national interests are going to be best served by having strong bipartisan friendships with the United States and other democratic partners around the world and internationalizing the cross-Strait situation,” says Vincent Chao, a DPP councilor in Taipei and foreign relations adviser to Tsai. “This would be the best deterrent against Chinese aggression.”

However, Taiwan’s citizens are wary of being used as a pawn in an escalating standoff between China and the U.S., where Republicans and Democrats increasingly vie to appear the more hawkish. The March TPOF poll found 58.6% of respondents agreed that U.S. support was motivated by American national interest which might differ from interests of the island.

Still, it’s a difficult balance for the KMT, which has to signal that it can mend ties with China while maintaining Taiwan’s de facto independence, values, and cherished democracy. In 2014, the student-led Sunflower Movement occupied Taiwan’s legislature for more than three weeks in opposition to a trade deal brokered by Ma that they feared would bring too much Chinese influence. Outside on the streets of Taipei, over 100,000 protesters waved banners such as: “Save democracy, don’t sell our country.”

Public reaction to Ma’s trip will serve as an invaluable gauge for KMT candidates to know how much to push the pro-China message. At present, opinion polls have the DPP and KMT neck-and-neck, although the DPP did suffer a crushing defeat in November’s local elections. Ultimately, cross-Strait ties is not the only issue at play, with a flagging economy and pandemic missteps also on voters’ minds.

And while the KMT’s pitch relies on strengthening ties, any escalation in Chinese belligerence has historically pushed voters toward the DPP. The Sunflower Movement presaged the DPP’s 2016 election victory, while mass protests against Beijing’s erosion of freedoms in semi-autonomous Hong Kong four years later helped reverse Tsai’s horrendous approval ratings to propel her reelection.

Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist based in Taiwan for the Australian National University, says that Beijing-friendly voices rely on keeping a gap between appearing cordial and outright kowtowing to China. “That gap can only be maintained if Beijing talks and acts relatively softly toward Taiwan.”

The question is, with eight months until the elections, can China maintain the nice guy act for that long?

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Write to Charlie Campbell / Singapore at charlie.campbell@time.com