Tsai Ing-wen, President of Taiwan, was in California on Wednesday (April 5) where she met with Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy. On the occasion of this meeting, the Taiwanese head of state underlined the “unwavering support” of the United States for her autonomous island, to which China disputes sovereignty. The reaction was quick from Beijing, which promised a “determined” response.

On Thursday morning, Taiwan announced that it had detected a Chinese plane and three warships near the island. “One People’s Liberation Army aircraft and three People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels were detected at 6 a.m. local time (2200 GMT Wednesday), Taiwan’s defense minister said in a statement.

“The armed forces have been monitoring the situation and tasked combat air patrol aircraft, navy ships and land-based missile systems to respond to these activities,” he added.

China launched unprecedented military maneuvers around Taiwan last August when Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the predecessor of Kevin McCarthy at Roost, visited Taiwan. Beijing on Wednesday compared the new meeting on American soil to “seriously mistaken acts of collusion” between the United States and Taiwan. “China will take determined and effective measures to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, without explicitly mentioning military exercises.

Against this flammable backdrop, Kevin McCarthy struck a cautious tone. The third figure of the American state assured that the relationship between Taipei and Washington was “stronger” than it had ever been “in (his) life”. The California elected official was surrounded by a large group of parliamentarians, Republicans and Democrats alike, to receive the Taiwanese president, who was in “transit” after a tour of Latin America. “Their presence and unwavering support reassures the Taiwanese people that we are not isolated, we are not alone,” said Tsai Ing-wen.

China considers that the democratic and autonomous island of Taiwan is one of its provinces to be taken back, favoring “peaceful reunification” but without excluding the use of force. In the name of its “one China” principle, no country is supposed to maintain official ties with Beijing and Taipei at the same time. Only 13 states still recognize Taiwan, including Belize and Guatemala, Latin American countries that Ms. Tsai has visited in recent days to cement the relationship with her few official allies, after a first stop in New York.

But the United States has a long-standing “strategic ambiguity” on the Taiwan issue. Washington has recognized Beijing since 1979, but remains Taiwan’s strongest ally and main arms supplier. Support for the island is one of the few points of consensus between the two parties in the US Congress. Under Tsai Ing-wen’s tenure, Taiwan moved closer to the United States.

A fact that Kevin McCarthy worked to recall with great symbolism in front of an old version of Ronald Reagan’s Air Force One presidential plane. “The friendship between the peoples of Taiwan and the United States is of great importance to the free world and is essential to maintaining economic freedom, peace and regional stability,” he said.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, who initially wanted to visit Taiwan, avoided discussing China directly alongside Ms. Tsai, but was more direct during a press conference after the meeting. “There is no need to take retaliatory measures,” he pleaded. But “China is not going to tell me where I can go or who I can talk to,” he added, not ruling out a future visit to the island.

He also called for “continuing arms sales to Taiwan”, which he said is the “best way” to prevent a Chinese invasion of the island. “It’s a key lesson we learned from Ukraine that the idea of ​​simple sanctions in the future won’t stop anyone,” he insisted.

The Biden administration has also tried to calm things down. On Wednesday, the head of American diplomacy, Antony Blinken, stressed that it was only a “transit” of the Taiwanese leader on American territory and not an official visit. He called on Beijing not to use the interview as an “excuse” to “escalate tensions”.

It remains to be seen how the Chinese response will translate into reality. “China has already made some pretty threatening statements, suggesting that it needs to respond one way or another,” AFP judge Bonnie Glaser, Asia program director at US think tank German Marshall fund. Without a strong reaction, Chinese President “Xi Jinping risks appearing weak.”