President-elect Donald Trump hasn't been sworn in yet, but it seems the Trump effect has already trickled down into Texas politics. On Sunday, despite pointed objections from China, Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Greg Abbott met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Houston when Tsai made a brief stopover on her way to Central America.
This may not sound like such a big deal on the face of it, but Taiwan is a delicate subject for China. Beijing officials consider Taiwan, a democratically governed island off the southern coast of mainland China, a part of China and they get really touchy if anyone says anything that even hints to the contrary.
The meeting comes after the Chinese had publicly urged the United States to not even let Tsai into the country. When this request was ignored, they followed up by urging U.S. lawmakers not to meet with her when she was here. Needless to say, China was less than thrilled to learn that not only was Tsai going to be allowed into the United States, but that she was going to take a meeting with Texas lawmakers while she was here.
This didn't seem to bother Cruz and Abbott. The pair met with Tsai despite a pointed letter from the Chinese Consul General in Houston, Li Qiangmin, asking them not to meet with her.
“For U.S. leaders in administration and legislature, not to make any contact with Taiwan leaders nor send any implication of support of ‘Taiwan Independence’ are in the interests of China, the U.S. and the international community,” Li wrote in his letter, according to the Washington Post. “So, dear Senator, I sincerely hope that you will neither meet, nor have any contact with Tsai during her upcoming visit to Houston, and continue to play a significant role in promoting mutual understanding and friendship between the two peoples of China and the U.S.”
Relations between the United States and China are already extra tense over the whole Taiwan issue, ever since President-elect Donald Trump accepted Tsai's congratulatory phone call in early December. Trump's speaking directly with Taiwan's leader broke with nearly four decades of protocol of, well, not doing that. Relations between the United States and China have been more than a little testy ever since.
Now, Cruz and Abbott have followed Trump's lead by formally, openly getting together with Tsai. The meeting itself doesn't seem to have been anything special. Just some photo ops and a little chatting about energy and other business-related things. Tsai stated in a release issued after the meeting that Texas and Taiwan have important economic ties. Tsai pointed out that in 2015, Taiwan was the state's fifth-largest export market in Asia, and Taiwanese companies have invested more than $10 billion in Texas, in a statement issued after the meeting. (As impressive as all that sounds, it's worth noting that China is the third-largest export market for Texas in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau on Foreign Trade.)
Abbott was sanguine about the event. “It was an honor to meet with President Tsai and discuss how our two economies can expand upon our already prosperous trade partnership,” Abbott stated, according to the release. "Thanks to our favorable regulatory and legal climate, Texas remains and will continue to be a premier destination for Taiwanese businesses to expand and thrive. I look forward to strengthening Texas’ bond with Taiwan and continuing my dialogue with President Tsai to create even more opportunity and a better future for our citizens.”
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Cruz went with the most inflammatory route, of course, issuing a statement that dripped with faux-outrage about a "curious" letter from the Chinese consulate asking members of Congress not to meet with Tsai because of the "One-China policy." (We've asked the Chinese consulate to give us its take on this, but haven't heard back yet. We'll update as soon as we do.)
Never one to miss an opportunity for a little grandstanding, Cruz made it clear that he has no intention of letting China boss him around. He also claimed that the meeting was really none of China's business, and that the meeting with Tsai has nothing to do with China. "The People’s Republic of China needs to understand that in America, we make decisions about meeting with visitors for ourselves," Cruz stated. "The Chinese do not give us veto power over those with whom they meet. We will continue to meet with anyone, including the Taiwanese, as we see fit."
Then he went on to explain what they discussed, as if knowing that the trio talked about arms sales, diplomatic exchanges and economic relations would somehow make China feel less incensed about the whole thing. "Furthering economic cooperation between our two nations must be a priority; increased access to Taiwanese markets will benefit Texas farmers, ranchers and small business owners alike," Cruz stated. (We asked Cruz's office how exactly access to Taiwan's markets in particular will benefit Texas farmers, ranchers and small business owners specifically, but his office replied that it would let the statement speak for itself.)
This isn't the first time U.S. lawmakers have met with a Taiwanese leader — Florida Senator Marco Rubio met up with Tsai in Miami back in June with much less fanfare — but coming after Trump's casual little phone call, Abbott and Cruz's meeting is yet another signal that things are going to be very different when Trump takes over the White House.