SIMI VALLEY, Calif.— Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday hosted a carefully choreographed series of meetings with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, underscoring the juggling act facing the United States as it tries to confront an increasingly aggressive China without precipitating a military crisis around the island.
The gathering at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, which unfolded as China is expanding its global influence, was a political and diplomatic compromise for both sides. The meeting with Mr. McCarthy, whose position puts him second in line to the presidency, was the highest-level government reception a Taiwanese president has enjoyed on U.S. soil, but still fell short of an audience with the American president.
It also was in some ways a backtrack by Mr. McCarthy, who had promised during the midterm elections that if he were elected speaker, he would travel to Taiwan to meet with Ms. Tsai in a show of defiance to China, but settled for a visit in his home state instead that was viewed as less risky by both Washington and Taipei.
Mr. McCarthy’s predecessor, Nancy Pelosi of California, visited Ms. Tsai in Taiwan last year when she was the House speaker, defying President Biden’s cautions and leaving in her wake a crisis in the region. Mr. McCarthy, a California Republican who has frequently accused Mr. Biden of being insufficiently tough on China, used the moment to reinforce his own willingness to take on Beijing, noting that he had not ruled out visiting the island at some point in the future.
“I am the speaker of the House,” he told reporters after the meetings. “There is no place that China’s going to tell me where I can go and who I can speak to, whether you be foe or whether you be friend.”
Leaders in both capitals are trying to balance a desire to shore up Taiwan’s ties with the United States, its most powerful partner by far, against an interest in avoiding steps that might prompt aggressive military encroachments from Beijing. In her meeting with lawmakers, Ms. Tsai said that “we will not act recklessly, but nor we will allow ourselves to be bullied,” according to Representative Ritchie Torres, Democrat of New York, who was part of the bipartisan delegation that joined Mr. McCarthy for the meetings.
Ms. Tsai praised the members of Congress who received her for “their presence and unwavering support,” adding that it served to “reassure the people of Taiwan that we are not isolated and we are not alone.”
China condemned both the United States and Taiwan for Ms. Tsai’s visit using bellicose language, though it fell short of laying out any specific military response. The Chinese Ministry of Defense warned that the People’s Liberation Army “maintains high vigilance at all times, resolutely defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and said it opposed “the leader of the Taiwan region slinking to the United States under any name or for any excuse.”
In a separate statement, the foreign ministry called the meeting an act of “U.S.-Taiwan collusion,” and warned that China would “take resolute and vigorous measures to defend its national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
After Ms. Pelosi’s visit last year, Beijing canceled several diplomatic, military and climate policy engagements with the United States and held days of military exercises in seven live-fire zones around Taiwan.
The gathering came as Western leaders grapple with how forcefully to challenge China in light of the nation’s increasingly assertive position on the global stage, including Beijing’s success brokering a deal last month to reestablish diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and its recent efforts to provide strategic support to aid Russia in its protracted invasion of Ukraine.
In the United States, the default approach has been an aggressive one. The Biden administration has imposed restrictions on exports to China of materials related to the semiconductor industry, and lawmakers have clamored for more punishing crackdowns, particularly in recent weeks after a Chinese spy balloon traversed U.S. air space.
That defiant stance was echoed by many lawmakers present for Wednesday’s meetings with Ms. Tsai, who seized upon the setting of the Reagan library to invoke the spirit of the former president, who was militantly anti-communist and frequently espoused a black-and-white approach to dealing with America’s allies and enemies.
“Some who have failed to learn from decades of C.C.P. behavior have been wringing their hands, wondering if we’re being too provocative,” said Representative Mike Gallagher, Republican of Wisconsin and the chairman of a new committee established to highlight the strategic risks posed by the Chinese Communist Party.
Invoking a Reagan admonition that those who fear reprisals are simply “feeding the crocodile,” Mr. Gallagher said: “We must not be intimidated. And Speaker McCarthy and this bipartisan delegation are here today to send a simple message, and that’s, ‘We are not afraid.’”
Others have taken a more conciliatory course. On Wednesday, as Ms. Tsai met with lawmakers in California, President Emmanuel Macron of France visited Beijing to meet with Chinese leaders, appealing to them as a responsible power that could help settle global conflicts, and even bring peace to Ukraine.
Washington shifted diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China in 1979. Beijing has since objected to meetings between senior American and Taiwanese officials or politicians as provocative acts, treating Taiwan as an illegitimate breakaway that must be recovered. The U.S. president and other top officials do not meet Taiwanese leaders, but lower-level contacts have grown under the Trump and Biden administrations, drawing Beijing’s ire.
Though Taiwanese presidents have regularly come to the United States and rank-and-file members of Congress have routinely visited Taiwan over the past few decades, the pace of congressional trips has accelerated since last year, as lawmakers rush to show solidarity and pledge to deepen cooperation with Taiwan, arming it against a potential war with China.
Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is scheduled to lead another bipartisan delegation of lawmakers to Taiwan that is expected to meet with Ms. Tsai on Saturday, according to two people familiar with the itinerary.
Taiwan recently has been losing allies under pressure from Beijing. Shortly before Mr. Tsai left Taiwan to tour the United States and Central America, Honduras broke off diplomatic relations with Taipei, in favor of China.
During her stops in New York and California, Ms. Tsai eschewed opportunities to give major political speeches, meeting officials like Mr. McCarthy behind closed doors and keeping secret a session last week with Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic leader, in an apparent attempt to avoid giving Beijing excuses to stage a display of military might similar to the one that followed Ms. Pelosi’s visit last year.
Still, Ms. Tsai’s tour has not progressed entirely without incident. On Wednesday, Chinese maritime authorities announced patrols in two areas east of Taiwan, but there was no indication that naval ships were involved.
The Mainland Affairs Council in Taipei, which handles relations with China, denounced the patrols, saying that they could interfere with shipping. The Taiwanese Defense Ministry said it had spotted a Chinese navy ship passing through the Bashi Channel, which lies between Taiwan and the Philippines.
Beijing demands that all countries accept its One China principle, which dictates that Taiwan is part of its territory. Instead, Washington maintains a One China policy, which acknowledges Beijing’s claim without endorsing it.
Ms. Tsai’s visit comes amid an intense debate in Washington about how to step up weapons shipments assistance to the island and whether the United States should commit to aid Taiwan if China attacks. Last year, acting with bipartisan support, Congress authorized a five-year pilot program to furnish Taiwan with up to $2 billion for military training and weapons purchases and $1 billion annually in weapons from existing stocks as a display of the United States’ commitment to act on statutory requirements directing Washington to help Taiwan maintain its defenses.
But the $2 billion-per-year program was never funded as envisioned. Lawmakers who were left scrambling at the end of the year to pull together a spending package ended up supplanting it with loan guarantees that Taiwan, a cash-rich entity, is generally assumed will not use. The end result was that the United States projected a weaker signal of solidarity than intended, putting more pressure on Congress to adjust the balance this year and fueling Republican ire.
Deliveries of weapons were a subject of discussions in Wednesday’s closed-door hearings, according to lawmakers who participated in them. But Ms. Tsai emphasized trade and economic partnerships even more than military assistance, according to Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts. Mr. Moulton and other lawmakers present noted that she said she did not think an attack from Beijing was imminent.
Republicans have criticized the Biden administration for refusing to declare unequivocally that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily if Beijing tried to invade. Since taking office, Mr. Biden has embraced that position three times, only to have his aides walk it back.
Several lawmakers in both parties have speculated that any successes Russia racks up in its invasion of Ukraine will embolden China to try a similar land grab in Taiwan.
Ms. Tsai’s tour of the United States also comes as the island is preparing for presidential elections to choose her successor, as term limits prevent her from running again. The contest in January is expected to pit Ms. Tsai’s successor in the Democratic Progressive Party, which has positioned itself as the guardian of Taiwanese autonomy, against a candidate from the opposition Nationalist Party, which advocates close ties with China.
Experts say the race could be heavily influenced by what steps Washington and Beijing take in the months ahead, including whether China reacts militarily to this week’s meeting.
“The problem is, for Beijing, either way they lose,” said Yun Sun, a co-director of the East Asia Program and the director of the China Program at the Stimson Center. “If they overreact, they will lose because the U.S. will provide more support to Taiwan, and Taiwanese public opinion will be even more against reunification. But if they don’t react, this will be perceived as acquiescence.”
Karoun Demirjian reported from Simi Valley and Chris Buckley from Taipei. Roger Cohen contributed reporting.