Taiwan president announces trip to the Americas, stirring concern

Tsai Ing-wen plans to visit allies in Central America at the end of the month, making two unofficial stops in the US.

A man at a lectern speaks into two microphones, as a video screen next to him shows the image of Taiwan's president
Taiwan Vice Foreign Minister Alexander Yui speaks next to a photo of President Tsai Ing-wen on Tuesday [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

The office of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has revealed she will make unofficial stops in the United States as she travels to visit two Central American allies, Guatemala and Belize.

But in the wake of Tuesday’s announcement, the administration of US President Joe Biden has sought to underscore the “personal” nature of the stops, in an attempt to avoid escalating tensions with China.

“These are called transits,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said of the planned US stops. “Not uncommon. President Tsai has done it six times. Every single Taiwan president in recent memory has done this.”

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Kirby dismissed questions that the administration might be trying to diminish the significance of any visits. “It’s not about downplaying. It’s about being factual,” he told reporters.

The US, like the vast majority of the world, has no official relations with Taiwan, in favour of maintaining diplomatic ties with China, which considers the island part of its territory.

China opposes state-to-state relations between the self-governing island and other nations, and earlier this month, Honduras signalled it would likely break its diplomatic ties with Taiwan to forge a relationship with China.

If that comes to pass, the number of official diplomatic allies Taiwan has would fall to 13.

Nevertheless, China has criticised the US for maintaining unofficial relations with the island, including through the sale of military weapons and equipment.

On Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry condemned President Tsai’s planned trip, warning that it disapproved of any contact between the governments of the US and Taiwan.

“We again warn the Taiwan authorities that there is no way out for Taiwan independence, and any illusions about attempts to collude with external forces to seek independence and provocation is doomed to fail,” said spokesperson Wang Wenbin.

He likewise slammed Germany for its education minister’s visit to Taiwan this week, calling the trip a demonstration of “vile conduct”. Germany, like the US, has no formal relations with Taiwan, and it refuted claims that the visit had violated the “One China” principle.

In an attempt to assuage diplomatic concerns, the Biden administration emphasised on Tuesday that President Tsai’s stops in the US would be “unofficial” and “business as usual”.

“There’s no reason for China to overreact,” Kirby told reporters. “Heck, there’s no reason for them to react. This is something that, as I said, is commonplace.”

But news of Tsai’s layovers in the US have increased speculation that she intends to meet with Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the leading Republican in the US House of Representatives.

McCarthy had been rumoured to be planning a visit to Taiwan, echoing a similar trip taken by the previous speaker of the House, Democrat Nancy Pelosi. Her brief appearance last August, alongside five other members of the Democratic Party, made her the highest-ranking US official to visit the island since 1997.

But it also drew outrage from China, which proceeded to conduct military exercises around the island, even dropping missiles off its shores.

Tsai’s visit to the US could provide McCarthy with an alternative to making an equally sensitive trip to Taiwan. But when pressed about the prospect of a meeting between the two officials, Taiwan’s Vice Foreign Minister Alexander Yui avoided confirming any plans, saying instead that details would be revealed at a later date.

Tsai is scheduled to be in New York on March 30 on her way to Central America, according to her spokesperson Lin Yu-chan. She is also expected to make her return trip through Los Angeles on April 5, in McCarthy’s home state of California.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies