Experts react: Your guide to the Taiwanese president’s trip to the US and Central America

It’s high-wire diplomacy. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen kicked off a consequential foreign trip in New York on Thursday, to be followed by visits to Guatemala and Belize, then a final stop in Los Angeles for a highly anticipated potential meeting with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The visit comes as tensions between the United States and China are nearing a boiling point, and as Taiwan is hustling to hang on to its allies in Latin America after Honduras recently switched to recognizing Beijing. Meanwhile, former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou is visiting China—an exceedingly rare instance of high-level cross-strait diplomacy. What can Taiwan and its partners achieve with this trip? How will China respond? Below, our experts explore what’s next.

This post will be updated with more experts reactions throughout the trip.

Military escalation would not redound to Beijing’s benefit
China will register its displeasure with Tsai’s US trip. Rhetorical censure, check. Targeted sanctions including blacklisting of select Taiwanese politicians and entities, possible. Some limited economic sanctions and military show of force, also in the cards.

But it would not be in Beijing’s strategic interest to use egregiously escalatory military action in retaliation, given two considerations: third-party audiences and the trip by Taiwan’s ex-President Ma to China.

First, third-party audiences such as Europe would rather not see the Taiwan Strait situation escalate, for they are already busy with Ukraine and post-COVID economic recovery. And they understand Taiwan and the United States get this and are therefore opting to hold Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy on US soil, a less politically sensitive option to Beijing than McCarthy visiting Taiwan.

In other words, Taiwan and the United States are already choosing the relatively less provocative option. If in response, Beijing still chooses to retaliate at a level matching or even exceeding what it did after then Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit in August 2022, then the United States and Taiwan will cite Beijing’s reaction to seize the high ground in the eyes of other governments and paint a picture of an insatiable Beijing that no one can work with.

Second, Ma’s trip marks the first visit to China by a former or sitting Taiwanese president in more than half a century. If Beijing escalates militarily, it will waste this rare opportunity to underscore cross-strait friendship, in exchange for chipping away at the success of Tsai’s US trip ever so slightly.

So if Beijing does escalate militarily, despite all these downsides, it would either be a sign of questionable strategic thinking or misalignment among internal agencies working at cross purposes. China is not always playing three-dimensional chess.

—Wen-Ti Sung is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub and a political scientist at the Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program.

Even though Tsai’s US trip is typical, expect an exaggerated response from China
On paper, it is totally normal and in accordance with US protocol for a Taiwanese president to stop over in the United States. Every Taiwanese president, regardless of whether they are from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or the Kuomintang (KMT), has made these types of trips in the past. Even former president Ma—who is currently on his own semi-diplomatic trip to China—made no small number of visits to the United States while he was president. Tsai herself last visited in 2019 to give a speech at Columbia University, during which the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) response was largely muted.

But an action like a Taiwanese president flying through the United States, which in the past was seen as a normal, small, and inconsequential act, is now going to be portrayed by the PRC as large, antagonistic, and escalatory. Even though Taiwanese presidential visits have been a longstanding practice, in the year 2023 when US-China-Taiwan tensions have reached an all-time high, such acts have become far more politicized, despite previous practices or intentions.

Regardless of precedent, we should still anticipate an exaggerated response from the PRC. One silver lining, however, is that Tsai’s stopover in the United States is unlikely to result in large-scale military drills from the PRC similar to those that followed Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022. Tsai’s move to meet McCarthy in the United States instead of having him come to Taiwan was a smart, pragmatic move by Tsai that helps ensure that we do not see a repeat of August 2022. Even though the PRC will make an unnecessarily big deal out of Tsai’s trip, from the PRC’s perspective it is far less inflammatory than McCarthy going to Taiwan. But we should still expect some kind of overstated response from China, likely in the form of fighter jets flying over the Taiwan Strait Median Line and combative rhetoric from the PRC leadership.

—Lev Nachman is a nonresident fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub and an assistant professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan.

Tsai will play up concrete reasons for Guatemala and Belize to remain allies
Tsai arrives in Guatemala in the midst of a contentious presidential election season. Twenty-three candidates will vie for the presidency, and there are already concerns about ensuring a free and fair electoral process ahead of the June 25 election. Taiwan hasn’t been a topic of contention among presidential candidates, but it’s possible that some candidates may criticize Tsai for meeting with the deeply unpopular President Alejandro Giammattei, unless she also meets with opposition figures.

During her trip, Tsai will most likely visit various projects funded by Taiwan’s International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF), including health care personnel training programs, agribusiness technical assistance, and financial support to local entrepreneurs. Last year, Taiwan also paid for a lobbying contract to promote Guatemala with US officials, an odd example of the extent Taiwan will go to keep Guatemala as an ally. But whether this support is enough to prevent Guatemalan leaders from eventually making the same economic calculus as Honduras is yet to be seen. In December, Guatemala’s ambassador to Taiwan pledged that his country would plan a summit of “Taiwan-friendly” countries in March; as Tsai touches down in Guatemala, that pledge has yet to materialize.

In Belize, Tsai needs to demonstrate to local leaders that Taiwan continues to deliver on key local priorities, such as infrastructure, medicine and public health, and agricultural technology. In May 2022, Belize, Taiwan and the Inter-American Development Bank signed an agreement to support Belizean micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises, especially for women entrepreneurs. Taiwan’s ICDF provided five million dollars to this initiative. Tsai will likely visit local entrepreneurs who have benefited from this program. Tsai and her Belizean counterpart, Prime Minister John Briceño, might also announce new trade agreements for Taiwan to import Belizean citrus fruits, juice concentrate, and marine products such as shrimp, and for Belize to import Taiwanese electric buses to support Belize’s renewable energy goals.

—Leland Lazarus is a nonresident fellow at the Global China Hub and associate director for national security at Florida International University’s Jack Gordon Institute of Public Policy. He formerly served as special assistant and speechwriter to the commander of US Southern Command and as a US State Department foreign service officer in China and the Caribbean.