The U.S. Capitol is seen on July 6, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Capitol is seen on July 6, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

Several Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Wednesday said they met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen last week during her stopover in New York City. The lawmakers confirmed the meetings hours before Tsai is set to meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said he and Tsai met while she was in New York on Friday, the first of two U.S. stops she had scheduled to bookend a trip to Central American countries that maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

"We had a very productive conversation about the mutual security and economic interests between America and Taiwan," Jeffries said in a statement Wednesday morning. "We also discussed our shared commitment to democracy and freedom."

Tsai also met with a bipartisan group of senators — including Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) — while in New York on Friday, Ernst's office confirmed Wednesday.

In a joint news release, the senators said they discussed their support for Taiwan, as well as the importance of deterring Beijing from invading the self-governing democracy. The Chinese Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan, but considers it to be part of China, to be taken by force if necessary.

"I'm glad a bipartisan group of senators — two veterans and an active member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves — had the opportunity to show our support for Taiwan during a meeting with President Tsai last week," Sullivan said. "It's important when a leader of this important island democracy travels to the United States that dictators in Beijing are not allowed to dictate who Americans can meet with, especially on American soil."

Later Wednesday, Tsai is scheduled to meet with McCarthy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., before returning to Taiwan. A representative for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Both the White House and Taipei have emphasized that a Taiwanese leader making such stops in the U.S. is not new. For example, Tsai met with Sen. Ted Cruz (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in Houston en route to Central America in 2017. However, Beijing has threatened unspecified retaliation if Tsai meets with McCarthy, claiming it would cross a "red line."

Tsai's meeting with McCarthy will mark the culmination of an eight-year effort to raise Taiwan's international profile and strengthen relationships with countries that share democratic values with Taipei, even if they do not have a formal diplomatic ties. Central to that strategy has been normalizing high-level exchanges with the United States.

In a speech to the Hudson Institute last week, Tsai underscored that Taiwan's exclusion from the international community "cannot be continued."

"Taiwan needs the support of other democratic countries to assist us in participating in international organizations," she said.

On Monday, Tsai told the National Assembly of Belize, one of the 13 states to still formally recognize Taiwan, that "some countries try to destroy our friendship, but we are still bound together based on shared values."

China has accused Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party of covertly supporting Taiwan's formal independence and intensified military threats, regularly flying large numbers of fighter jets close to Taiwanese airspace and sending warships across what had for decades been an informal boundary down the middle of the Taiwan Strait.

China responded to the Taiwan visit by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in August with its greatest display of military might since the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in the 1990s. In what Taipei called blockade simulation, it sent warships to drill all around Taiwan and fired missiles high over the main island and into Japanese waters.

In recent days, Chinese experts warned of a similar military display should Tsai meet with McCarthy. Hu Xijin, former editor of the state-run Global Times, dismissed the idea that meeting in California would be less provocative, saying that China "must not lower our posture."

But Taiwan, too, does not want to give ground when China is doing "everything within their power to continue to strangle Taiwan's international space, inclusive of Taiwan's relations with the United States," said Vincent Chao, a former Washington D.C.-based Taiwanese diplomat. "It's important to show that, like China, Taiwan and the United States have red lines as well," which included not backtracking on high-level meetings that happened before, he said.

Despite China's nationalist rhetoric, each side appears to be taking steps to avoid serious fallout, according to Su Tzu-yun, a military analyst at the government-funded Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan.

Su cited an announcement of a special operation in the Taiwan Strait from the Maritime Safety Administration of Fujian province, which may indicate Beijing is attempting to signal resolve without resorting to military exercises. "They are not sending the PLA but the coast guard to both underscore sovereignty and also avoid military escalation," he said.

A dramatic show of strength by China could backfire. Beijing is hoping that the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, which favors closer cross-strait trade and exchanges, wins Taiwan's presidential election next year. Fresh aggression from Beijing could create support for the DPP's strategy of resisting China and deal a blow to the opposition's campaign to relieve tensions through talks with Beijing.

Those competing narratives were captured in a trip by Taiwan's former president Ma Ying-jeou to China as Tsai was in the Americas. The retired Kuomintang politician, ostensibly on a personal trip to visit the home of his ancestors, sparked controversy when he said that Taiwan was part of "one China" — a position that is increasingly unpopular in Taiwan.

Speaking at Hunan University, Ma cited revisions to the constitution of the Republic of China, Taiwan's official name, to claim that Taipei's official position is that the "mainland" and Taiwan are separate zones within a single country. He also noted that the People's Republic of China makes a similar claim about Taiwan being a sacred part of Chinese territory.

Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, the government body in charge of managing relations with Beijing, rebuked Ma for "belittling" Taiwan and ignoring the fact that Taiwan has never been part of the People's Republic of China.

Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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