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U.S. lawmakers arrive in Taiwan days after new president takes office

TAIPEI, Taiwan — A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers arrived in Taiwan on Sunday, days after the Beijing-claimed island’s new president took office with a warning to China to stop its threats.

The bipartisan delegation of six House members is the first group of current U.S. officials to meet with Taiwan President Lai Ching-te and arrived after China concluded two days of “punishment” drills around the island in response to what it described as “separatist acts.”

“I think it’s very important that we show our strong support for Taiwan. I think it is a deterrent,” Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told NBC News before their arrival.

The delegation led by McCaul is his second to the island, and also includes Reps. Young Kim, R-Calif., Joe Wilson, R-S.C., Andy Barr, R-Ky., Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., and Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa.

Though lawmakers from the United States and other countries regularly travel to Taiwan, China views such visits as provocative and supportive of “‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces.”

Image: Taiwan's new President Lai Ching-te
Taiwan’s new president, Lai Ching-te, right, and former President Tsai Ing-wen wave during Lai’s inauguration ceremonies in Taipei, Taiwan, on May 20.Chiang Ying-ying / AP

As with McCaul’s first delegation to Taiwan in April 2023, Chinese officials expressed opposition to the current trip.

In an email first obtained by NBC News, a Chinese Embassy official warned McCaul against the visit and described Lai’s inauguration speech on Monday as “the worst speech ever by a Taiwan new leader.”

“It once again proved that Mr. Lai has chosen an independence course and is on his way to implement it,” the email read.

Like the majority of the Taiwanese public, Lai, 65, who was the island’s vice president for the past four years, says he favors maintaining the status quo, neither formally declaring independence nor becoming part of China.

Speaking at a meeting of his Democratic Progressive Party on Sunday, Lai thanked the U.S. and other countries for their support and said he “looked forward to enhancing mutual understanding and reconciliation with China via exchanges and cooperation.”

While in Taipei, the U.S. lawmakers plan to meet with senior Taiwanese officials to understand the new administration’s priorities and objectives, a Foreign Affairs Committee spokesperson said.

The lawmakers will also meet with the leadership of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. Embassy, to conduct oversight and discuss the U.S. relationship with Taiwan, which has no formal relations with Washington but relies on it for defensive weapons and international support.

A bipartisan delegation of former senior U.S. officials attended Lai’s inauguration.

China has not ruled out the use of force in unifying with Taiwan, which rejects Beijing’s sovereignty claims. Cross-strait relations deteriorated under Lai’s predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, with China stepping up military and other pressure on the island, which is formally recognized by only 12 governments worldwide.

In his inauguration speech, Lai, who is also known by his English name William, urged China to cease its political and military threats against democratic Taiwan, which he called “a front-line guardian of world peace.”

“I hope that China will face the reality of the Republic of China’s existence, respect the choices of the people of Taiwan and in good faith choose dialogue over confrontation,” Lai said, using Taiwan’s formal name.

China expressed its disapproval of Lai on Thursday and Friday in joint military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and around groups of Taiwan-controlled islands near the Chinese coast, leading Taiwan’s military to mobilize its own forces.

“This action targets the Taiwan independence forces and deters external forces from interfering, which is entirely reasonable, legal and necessary,” Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said at a news conference in Beijing on Friday.

In a statement on Thursday, the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the island would “continue to firmly uphold democracy” and that “this commitment will not change as a result of any coercion or suppression.”

Though China’s military response was expected and not as severe as the live-fire military exercises it launched after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, experts said it might indicate a hardening of attitudes in Beijing.

“The million-dollar question that we’re all trying to answer is whether or not this will become a normal thing under the Lai administration, or whether this is just a necessary response that we knew the PRC was going to do?” said Lev Nachman, a political scientist and assistant professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei, using the initials for China’s formal name, the People’s Republic of China.

“We don’t know yet.”

The delegation’s visit also comes after Congress recently passed about $2 billion in military aid for Taiwan in hopes of enhancing its defensive capabilities against China.

Alexander Yui, Taiwan’s new representative to the U.S., said the delegation’s visit to the island was “a show of the strength of friendship that we have worldwide.”

“It’s, in its essence, as important as the military aspect of our solid standing in the world and to show the other side that people do care about Taiwan,” Yui said.

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