Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen, owes her presidency to her pledge to preserve the island’s sovereignty. Her meeting with President Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday, and Beijing’s response to the visit, highlight the complexity of that task.
The meeting between the two leaders, which was streamed live online, appeared to maximize publicity and strengthen the relationship.
Ms. Pelosi called Taiwan “one of the freest societies in the world.” She said the congressional delegation traveled to Taiwan “to make it unequivocally clear that we will not give up on our commitment to Taiwan and that we are proud of our enduring friendship.”
Ms. Tsai called Ms. Pelosi “Taiwan’s most devoted friend.” She said the speaker had shown “longstanding support for Taiwan’s international participation,” a reference to the jockeying between China and other countries to isolate Taiwan from international institutions.
At the event, Ms. Pelosi received an award, the Order of Propitious Clouds, which is presented to Taiwanese and foreigners who have made outstanding contributions to Taiwan. Upon receiving the award, Ms. Pelosi said with a laugh that she would wear it to her Washington office.
Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek’s troops withdrew after the communist revolution of 1949, was never part of the People’s Republic of China. Today, it has a distinct identity that makes voluntary unification with China unlikely, even if Beijing treats it as an unlawful violation of its rule.
Ms Tsai, the first woman to rule Taiwan, came to power in 2016, after eight years of her predecessor pushing for closer relations with China. The elections revolved largely around economic issues, including concerns about growing economic ties to mainland China.
During Ms. Tsai’s first term, one of her major projects was the attempt to revive the island’s military at a time when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army was undergoing a massive upgrade. But she struggled to impose a new strategic vision on the island’s military leadership.
In 2019, her party had lost important local elections, jeopardizing its chances of winning a second term. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, gave her a political gift that year by warning that Taiwan “must and will be” united with China — and that independence efforts there could be met with armed force.
In response, Ms Tsai deviated from her usual cautious ambiguity by saying Mr Xi’s comments were “impossible to accept” and called for domestic and international support for Taiwan’s de facto independence.
She won reelection in 2020, reversing her fortune by portraying herself as a defender of the island’s democracy and sovereignty — and addressing local concerns about China’s rising authoritarianism.
Ms Tsai’s profile rose further after the 2020 elections, boosted in part by Taiwan’s early success in containing the coronavirus. And she continued to refuse the condition China had made for improved relations: acceptance of Mr Xi’s view that the island is an inexorable part of a larger Chinese nation under the Communist Party.
Mrs. Tsai kept quiet the days before Mrs. Pelosi arrived. But political advisers close to her said they welcomed the visits from US officials, and her meticulous planning for Ms. Pelosi’s visit even earned some praise from opposition members Kuomintang.
“They made no statement to the outside world, didn’t try to antagonize the other side, and did their best not to make the situation in the Taiwan Strait too tense,” said Alexander Huang, head of international affairs. affairs of the Kuomintang.
Amy Chang Chien and John Liu reporting contributed.