It is not an official visit but a couple of “informal” stopovers in the US before and after visits to Latin American allies. There won’t even be a handshake with President Biden. But Beijing insists that the US visits by Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen, her seventh such since she became president in 2016, are a serious “provocation”. If, as is likely, she meets House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, an ardent supporter of stronger US ties, Beijing has promised unspecified retaliation. It conducted large scale live-fire war games off the coast in response to his predecessor Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island last year.
Washington’s policy of “constructive ambiguity” to Taiwanese independence claims, a formula aimed at preserving relations with Beijing, is once again being tested at a time of heightened tensions over a range of issues. President Xi Jinping has also upped the rhetoric, insisting on the island’s place as a Chinese province, which it has repeatedly vowed to annex.
Constructive ambiguity, increasingly seen as insufficient support by many in Congress, is not ambiguity about Taiwan’s independence claim which the US supports, though the island is not recognised diplomatically. Instead, it aims to leave China guessing about how Washington would respond to a forceful annexation. The US has warned Beijing not to use Tsai’s “normal” visit as a pretext for hostile action.
Biden has repeatedly stated that the US would deploy military forces to defend Taiwan in case of an invasion, but the comments have each time been “walked back” by embarrassed officials. A transition to an explicit policy of guaranteed military support for Taiwan to fend off a Chinese attack –”strategic clarity”– has backers in the US and Taiwan. Beijing routinely objects to any international interaction with Taiwan’s government and does not hesitate to threaten those who are too friendly to the island. Ireland, which supports a One China policy, does not recognise Taipei.
Unsurprisingly the president’s arrival in the US has been met by protesting supporters of China’s line - and by defenders of Taiwan.