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Taiwan's president is making what's being called a 'high stakes' stopover in New York

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, is in the U.S. today.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah, she's in New York as part of a high-stakes trip to Central America and the U.S. Taiwan is heading into a presidential election year. And of course, China is closely watching the visit as well, saying it, quote, "damages peace" and threatening to take resolute measures to fight back.

PFEIFFER: With us now is NPR's Emily Feng in Taipei to explain why this trip is so important. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha. Good morning.

PFEIFFER: Tell us more about this trip and the itinerary for the president.

FENG: So as you mentioned, she's in New York today. She's going to have a private dinner with a U.S. conservative think tank, the Hudson Institute. And then she heads to Belize and Guatemala, in Central America. These are two countries that still have formal relations with Taiwan. And Tsai's visit to Central America comes at a pretty critical moment for Taiwan because just last week, Honduras, another Latin American country, switched its recognition from Taiwan to Beijing. So the real excuse for this trip actually has been for her to go to Central America, but she's stopping over in the U.S.

Before she heads to Taiwan, she'll stop again in Los Angeles, where she's scheduled to meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. And the fact that they're doing this meeting in the U.S. is actually a bit of a compromise because McCarthy originally wanted to go to Taiwan. But to lower the temperature geopolitically in the room, this meeting is going to be in the U.S. Tsai and the Taiwan government have been really, really clear - they don't want to be pushed around by China with this compromise, but they're also going to travel without being intimidated. Here's Tsai right before departing from Taiwan yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT TSAI ING-WEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She says, "External pressure will not hinder our determination to go to the world. We are calm and confident. We will neither yield nor provoke."

PFEIFFER: And, Emily, what is China saying about this?

FENG: Well, unsurprisingly, China's not happy. China's government body on Taiwan issues yesterday had this statement. If Taiwan's regional leader, Tsai Ing-wen, meets with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, it would be a provocation. And they said they were going to take resolute measures to counter this. Now, what those measures are is not clear. And China says this every time Taiwan's president meets with U.S. officials or travels to the U.S. Before the pandemic, by the way, Tsai came to the U.S. basically once a year. But Beijing does have a serious range of retaliatory measures it could take. For example, last summer when former Speaker Nancy Pelosi came to Taiwan, China responded with this multiday military exercise around the island. And that's a really big reason why McCarthy is meeting Tsai in LA this time.

And the U.S. has been really careful about this meeting. They're calling her visit a stopover. This is not an official trip to the U.S. The official language is that she is simply transiting through as a private individual, albeit a transit that's going to take several days. And interestingly, at the same time that Tsai is in the U.S., former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou is in China. Ma's office has said this trip is a coincidence, that the timing was not planned. But in a way, his trip to China while Tsai is in the U.S. counterbalances the political risks of Tsai's trip.

PFEIFFER: And in terms of Tsai's trip, what would success look like for her?

FENG: She needs to defend Taiwan's interests without rocking the boat because this year is an election year for Taiwan. They have a presidential race, just like us, January of 2024. Tsai is not running, but she needs to prove to her party that strengthening ties with the U.S. is worth the risk of worsening relations with China. And so she needs to come back with some kind of concrete benefit. Right now, relations are close, but, for example, U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan have been delayed, so Tsai is under pressure to deliver and show that Taiwan has friends in the world, including the U.S.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Emily Feng in Taipei. Thanks, Emily.

FENG: Thanks, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.