(Bloomberg) -- Taiwan confirmed that President Tsai Ing-wen will transit through the US, with Biden administration officials warning Beijing not to overreact to the visit.

The outgoing leader will stop in New York on March 29 and 30 on her way to visit diplomatic allies in Central America, and also touch down in Los Angeles on April 6 and 7 on the way back, Presidential Office spokeswoman Lin Yu-chan announced in a Facebook livestream Tuesday. No details were provided on who she would meet or any other aspects of the trip, which risks adding to strains between the world’s two largest economies. 

The arrangement would allow her to meet US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in his home country rather than in Taiwan, according to a Taipei official. That’s in part to reduce the chance of a strong military response from China, similar to how Beijing reacted when then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last year, the official said, asking not to be identified while speaking on private arrangements. 

The trip will mark Tsai’s 8th transit through the US and — in keeping with past precedent — she will meet lawmakers and possibly officials from the American institute of Taiwan.

Senior Biden administration officials stressed that US stops were not only routine but also private and unofficial. They made clear the trip was different from Pelosi’s visit to Taipei and should not be used as a pretext by Beijing to lash out and increase tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

All of Taiwan’s sitting presidents since the 1990s have traveled to the US on stopovers en route to other destinations. While most visits passed without triggering heightened tensions, a visit by then-leader Lee Teng-hui to speak at Cornell University in 1995 sparked the so-called Third Strait Crisis, with China firing missiles into waters near the main island of Taiwan and carrying out amphibious assault exercises. 

The meeting comes at a delicate time for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is seeking to bolster his credentials as a geopolitical mediator and also reduce tensions with Japan, Australia, the European Union and others. Xi faces pressure at home to stand firm on Taiwan, while also refraining from actions that could bolster US efforts to isolate China on the world stage.  

After almost three years of Covid isolation, Xi has sought to reboot his image as a global statesman, with China helping to secure a deal to improve ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia and also announcing its own plan to create a cease-fire between Russia and Ukraine. The Chinese leader appeared to soften his rhetoric on Taiwan during recent major political gatherings in Beijing. 

China’s initial reaction was to file a diplomatic complaint with the US opposing the plans for Tsai’s visit, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Tuesday at a regular press briefing in Beijing.

“The transit is just a pretext,” he added. “The real intention is to seek breakthroughs and propagate Taiwan independence.”

The US responded with its own show of strength, sending the USS Nimitz carrier strike group through the Taiwan Strait. Other visits by subsequent leaders — including six by Tsai  — didn’t generate anywhere near the same response from China. 

But the stakes have been raised as the US steps up weapons sales and diplomatic engagement with Taiwan, while also imposing export controls and other restrictions to prevent China from obtaining advanced technology. US-China relations remain tense after a spat over an alleged spy balloon derailed a push for warmer ties following Xi’s meeting with President Joe Biden in Indonesia last November.

The Taiwanese government views China as increasingly willing to take risks to show its displeasure over exchanges between authorities in Taiwan and US officials, the Taipei official said. Beijing is prepared to increase the cost of further interactions, pushing other countries to censor themselves, the person added. 

Whether China takes stronger action will depend on who Tsai sees in the US, what she says, where she goes, the formality of the visit and other “little details,” according to Amanda Hsiao, a senior analyst at Crisis Group in Taiwan. 

“Hopefully Beijing sees this for what it is, which is I think an attempt to create a way out for everybody to deescalate tensions,” she said.

McCarthy originally wanted to travel to Taiwan once elected as speaker, but there’s no guarantee that the change in plans will avoid provoking Beijing. 

Tsai is likely to be as low-key as possible to try and avoid a strong Chinese reaction, ahead of a presidential election next year in which voters are closely assessing how the two main political parties manage the island’s relationship with its powerful neighbor.

Aircraft Carriers

Chang Yan-ting, a former vice chief commander of Taiwan’s Air Force, said China may opt for a more aggressive military response than after Pelosi’s visit, when it conducted a simulated blockade and fired missiles over the island. That could include sending aircraft carriers to the waters surrounding eastern Taiwan or firing greater volumes of rockets, he said.

Taiwan Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng previously told lawmakers that in another crisis Chinese ships or planes could breach the 24 nautical miles line around Taiwan’s coast and even approach its territorial seas 12 nautical miles from the coast.

Further coercive economic steps could include banning some imports from Taiwan, which would cut access to parts of the world’s largest consumer market. Imports of fish from Taiwan dropped rapidly after the Pelosi visit, although some of that trade restarted this year. Still, Chinese industry is reliant on imports of electronics goods from Taiwanese firms, limiting the goods which China could block without hurting itself. 

A milder reaction would largely limit itself to rhetoric — along the lines of the “grave concerns” and “firm opposition” to official interactions between the US and Taiwan — as laid out by China’s Foreign Ministry. Beijing could also stick with routine operations, such as aircraft crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait or entering Taiwan’s air-defense identification zones.

--With assistance from Samson Ellis, Lucille Liu and Jenny Leonard.

(Adds details, White House reaction for fourth paragraph.)

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.