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All eyes on Beijing as Taiwan's president makes stops in the U.S. and Central America

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, arrived in New York today. She'll be there a couple days before traveling on to Central America, and then she'll return to Taiwan via California next week. These U.S. stops are not being called visits. Officials are calling them transits. And as NPR's John Ruwitch explains, all eyes will be on how Beijing reacts.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: First, it's worth pointing out that Tsai's done this before, as did her predecessors. It's almost been an annual thing, except during the pandemic, and they've always been called transits. Taiwan has been self-governed for over 70 years, but Beijing considers it a part of China and does everything in its powers to limit Taiwan's space on the international stage.

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EDUARDO ENRIQUE REINA GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

RUWITCH: For example, Honduras' foreign minister, speaking here on Chinese state TV, just visited Beijing after his country was convinced this week to cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan and establish ties with China. Beijing has already started signaling unhappiness with Tsai's stopovers and, in particular, the possibility that she meets House Speaker Kevin McCarthy during the California stop next week. Here's a spokeswoman for the Chinese government's Taiwan affairs office.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPOKESPERSON: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: If Tsai has contact with McCarthy, the spokeswoman says, it'll be a provocation. And China will take measures to, quote, "resolutely fight back." That's what happened when former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went to Taiwan in August. China staged unprecedented military drills around the island and cut off dialogue with the U.S. across a range of topics. So both Taipei and Washington are treading a careful line this time around, says Shelley Rigger, a Taiwan expert at Davidson College.

SHELLEY RIGGER: It feels like everybody realizes we got really close to something really bad. We need to be more cautious.

RUWITCH: Rigger says a potential meeting between McCarthy and Tsai next week is likely a compromise.

RIGGER: She's trying to keep McCarthy in North America, and that is a big concession.

RUWITCH: The question is how will the Chinese leadership take it?

RIGGER: Are they able to calibrate their response to the size of the challenge that they're getting? Or has it become something that has been kind of internalized in PRC domestic politics in a way that makes that impossible?

RUWITCH: When Pelosi visited Taipei last year, Beijing turned anger into opportunity, testing its military and turning the screws on Taiwan. Rigger says if McCarthy and Tsai meet next week, it may see another opportunity. John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.