Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen waves as she arrives at a hotel in New York during a stopover on Thursday, March 30, 2023 a day before flying to Central America.
Hong Kong CNN  — 

An anticipated meeting between Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California this week has sparked concerns of a repeat of the pressure campaign China launched last year when then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei.

At that time, Beijing encircled the island democracy with unprecedented military drills – firing multiple missiles into its surrounding waters and sending dozens of warplanes speeding across a sensitive median line dividing the Taiwan Strait.

It also cut off contact with the United States over a number of issues from military matters to combating climate change, in retaliation for what it viewed as a violation of its sovereignty.

This time, Beijing has already threatened to “resolutely fight back” if a Tsai-McCarthy meeting goes ahead.

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It also slammed Washington for allowing Tsai to stopover in the US while en route to and from official visits in Central America, warning it could lead to “serious” confrontation between the two powers.

A defiant Tsai staked out her own ground, pledging as she took off on her 10-day trip not to let “external pressure” stop Taiwan from connecting with the world and like-minded democracies.

But the optics of the meeting, taking place in California and not Taiwan, and its timing – at a particularly thorny moment in China’s foreign relations and ahead of a presidential election in Taiwan that could reset the tone of its relationship with Beijing – may see Beijing tread more carefully this time, or at least not escalate further, analysts say.

“This puts the burden on China not to overreact, because any overreaction is only going to push China further away from the world,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Beijing won’t be closely watching Tsai’s movements as it calibrates its response – and decides how much military might to flex over her meeting with an American lawmaker on American soil.

The opacity of China’s system – and the potential for competing interests within its vast bureaucracy – also make it difficult to accurately predict its response.

“Every time Taiwan does anything that China doesn’t like, the Chinese react with their own military coercion,” Sun said. But in the current situation, “they have to consider the consequences of overreaction,” she added.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy talks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington on March 24, 2023.

Rising pressure

The expected meeting, which McCarthy’s office announced earlier this week would take place on Wednesday, also comes at a precarious moment in US-China relations.

Washington and Beijing are struggling to stabilize their communication amid flaring tensions over issues from a downed suspected Chinese surveillance balloon to semiconductor supply chains – raising the stakes of potential damage to that relationship if Beijing lashes out as it did when Tsai met Pelosi.

Taiwan is still feeling the fallout of that response last August, with Chinese military forces now regularly making incursions over what had previously been an informal but largely respected border of control between Beijing and Taipei in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan’s official Central News Agency also reported Monday that Tsai would meet with McCarthy, citing Tsai’s presidential office.