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Taiwan, like Ukraine, is fighting for democracy, Tsai says in New York

By Meaghan Tobin and Ellen Nakashima Washington Post

TAIPEI, Taiwan – Taiwan’s core values – freedom, democracy, human rights and rule of law – are in peril in the face of increasing authoritarianism, the democratic island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, said on Thursday, drawing direct parallels between Taiwan and Ukraine.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a wake-up call to us all, and served as a reminder that authoritarianism does not cease in its belligerence against democracy,” Tsai said at a private reception in New York City, which was closed to the press. The Post obtained a recording of her remarks.

Her trip has angered Beijing, which has threatened to retaliate if Tsai goes ahead with next week’s planned meeting in California with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who would become the highest-ranking U.S. official to meet with a Taiwanese leader on American soil.

After her remarks in New York on Thursday night, China’s People’s Liberation Army sent nine planes into the Taiwan Strait, where they crossed the median line into airspace claimed by Taiwan while carrying out combat readiness drills, the Defense Ministry in Taipei said.

Beijing repeated its condemnation of Tsai’s trip Thursday. “No matter what the Taiwan authorities say, nothing can change the fact that Taiwan is a part of China,” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning at a daily press conference. “No person or force can stop China from realizing reunification.”

At the event in New York, Tsai was given this year’s global leadership award from the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington. Previous recipients include former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.

As he presented Tsai with the award, Hudson Institute president John Walters praised her as a leader on the front line of the struggle to contain the Chinese government’s aggression in Asia.

“The Chinese Communist Party fears her because she and Taiwan are an inspiration for the Chinese people who aspire to be free and yearn for democracy,” Walters said, according to the tape. “Her battle – their battle – is our battle.”

Flanked by 16 bodyguards, Tsai delivered resolute remarks in the face of Beijing’s threats, insisting that Taiwan “will never bow to pressure.”

“Taiwan has also long endured the peril of living next to an authoritarian neighbor,” she said at the InterContinental New York Barclay hotel in Midtown. Taiwan does not seek conflict, Tsai said, reiterating her commitment to maintaining a peaceful status quo in the Taiwan Strait.

Tsai is spending two days in New York on her way to Central America, but her visit is deliberately low-key – she has no media appearances while in the United States – to avoid antagonizing Beijing.

Her speech came at the end of a day spent exploring New York City’s culinary delights in meetings with Taiwanese American chefs and restaurant owners. Crowds of supporters and protesters followed Tsai around the city, some carrying signs with messages such as “Welcome, Taiwanese President” and others waving Chinese flags and banners calling Tsai “a big traitor to China.”

The visit, Tsai’s first in over three years, has served as a reminder to Beijing that despite its global campaign to isolate Taiwan, few issues currently draw more support from both sides of the aisle in Washington than championing Taiwan’s democracy in the face of China’s aggression.

Uncertainty hangs over how China will respond to the visit. It was a pretext for “Taiwan independence separatist forces” to promote their cause in Washington, said a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Mao Ning.

The Biden administration has been trying to downplay Tsai’s trip, saying she is just passing through on her way to Central America. Last week, national security adviser Jake Sullivan held a call with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi to emphasize that the trip was routine.

The planned meeting with McCarthy at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., is already a downshift from McCarthy’s original intention to visit Taiwan himself, following a visit by House Speaker Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Taiwan last year that sparked an aggressive military reaction from China that included what some analysts have described as a simulated blockade of the island.

Tsai’s comments Thursday were resolute without being too provocative, said Patrick Cronin, Asia Pacific security chair for the Hudson Institute, who was in the audience of roughly 300 people.

The planned meeting with McCarthy and members of Congress in California next week could be more difficult to control, said Bonnie Glaser, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program.

“Even if President Tsai hopes to limit publicity surrounding those discussions, Speaker McCarthy may have other plans,” said Glaser, who was not at the Hudson event.

Beijing may interpret a meeting with an official as high-ranking as McCarthy to have even greater consequence than Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, said Jingdong Yuan, a professor focused on China’s defense policy at the University of Sydney.

“Meetings with senators and representatives are more or less routine, albeit limited in rank and numbers – so Tsai’s reportedly scheduled meeting with McCarthy would be something more significant,” Yuan said.

Under Washington’s “one-China policy,” which acknowledges but does not endorse Beijing’s claims that Taiwan is part of China and the Chinese Communist Party is its sole government, Tsai cannot go to the United States on an official state visit.

To stay in line with this policy, Tsai’s travels are coordinated between two organizations that function as embassies in all but name.

Tsai was greeted at John F. Kennedy International Airport by Laura Rosenberger, who recently left the National Security Council to lead the American Institute in Taiwan, the unofficial organization that manages relations between the United States and Taiwan. She has no other meetings planned with members of the Biden administration.

Tsai on Thursday met with ambassadors from countries that recognize Taiwan at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office. Known as Tecro, it donated over $100,000 to the Hudson Institute in 2021, according to the think tank’s most recent annual report.

Taiwan’s leaders’ ongoing negotiation with Washington over their reception in the United States dates back to President Lee Teng-hui’s first transit through Hawaii in 1994 – when he wasn’t granted a visa and didn’t set foot off his airplane. A later visit by Lee would kick off escalating military aggression from China in what became known as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis.

Since then, Taiwan’s leaders have pushed the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable, yet still unofficial, activities in the United States. On a previous trip in 2019, Tsai met with members of Congress and even held a banquet for the United Nations representatives of Taiwan’s allies.

This week, Tsai is in New York for two days on her way to shore up ties with Guatemala and Belize, two of the island democracy’s only remaining diplomatic allies.

At the same time, her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, has undertaken a landmark trip as the first former Taiwanese president to visit China, where he emphasized the shared history and connections between people on both sides of the Strait. Ma is from the opposition Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, which favors closer ties with China.

While Beijing has welcomed Ma’s visit, it refuses to engage with Tsai.

China has intensified its military harassment of Taiwan in recent years, sending fighter jets toward the island on a near-daily basis, and Chinese ships regularly cross the median line.

In the face of this increased activity, Taiwan boosted defense spending and extended its military service obligation from four months to one year, said Tsai on Thursday.

Because of Taiwan’s position as the linchpin of the global semiconductor supply chain, Tsai warned that an unstable Taiwan Strait posed serious economic and security risks to the rest of the world.

Many other Taiwanese companies wanted to follow in the footsteps of Taiwanese chipmakers GlobalWafers and TSMC to invest in the United States, but faced the burden of double taxation, said Tsai, calling for a new tax agreement.

Under current tax rules, Taiwanese companies pay an effective tax rate of 51 percent on profits they earn in the United States after factoring in withholding charges on dividends they send home, Bloomberg reported, citing Taiwanese officials.