Taiwan Vice President William Lai has left for a sensitive trip to the United States, which China has condemned and Taiwanese officials fear could prompt more Chinese military activity around the democratically governed island.
Lai, the frontrunner to become Taiwan’s president in elections in January, is officially making only transit stops in the United States on his way to and from Paraguay for the swearing-in of its president.
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Speaking to reporters on Saturday at Taiwan’s main international airport at Taoyuan, Lai made only fleeting mention of the US part of his trip, simply noting he was going to New York first.
He said he would use the Paraguay visit not only to deepen ties with that country but also to have “self-confident” exchanges with other countries and meet with delegations from like-minded partners.
This will “let the international community understand that Taiwan is a country that adheres to democracy, freedom and human rights, and actively participates in international affairs”, Lai added.
Taipei and Washington say such stopovers are routine and no cause for China to take “provocative” actions.
But Beijing has reacted with anger at what it sees as a further sign of US support for Taiwan, which it claims as sovereign Chinese territory.
China is likely to launch military drills next week near Taiwan. In the week leading up to Lai’s departure, incursions by the Chinese military around Taiwan’s waters and airspace – which have been happening near-daily in the past year – were larger than usual.
On Wednesday, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said 33 Chinese warplanes and six vessels were detected around the island over the past 24 hours.
In April, China staged three days of military exercises simulating a blockade of Taiwan after President Tsai Ing-wen met US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California.
Beijing particularly dislikes Lai, who has in the past described himself as a “practical worker for Taiwan independence”. Lai has, however, repeatedly said during the election campaign he does not seek to change the status quo.
Neither Taiwan nor the United States has given exact details about his US schedule, and both are aiming to keep that part low-key, according to officials briefed on the trip.
Lai is to return from Paraguay via San Francisco and is due back in Taiwan on Friday, according to the official schedule for the trip published on Saturday, which does not mention the US legs.
The Paraguay part of the trip is also important given China’s increasing efforts to take Taiwan’s remaining allies.
Foreign ministry spokesman Jeff Liu said there was “nothing special” about vice presidents transiting in the United States, which has occurred 11 times before.
“China has no reason to overreact or take the opportunity to escalate the situation,” Liu said in a briefing this week, adding that Lai was making the trip in his capacity as vice president, not as a presidential candidate.
“If China decides … to take provocative actions, it is China, not Taiwan or the United States, that undermines the status quo of peace and stability in the region,” Liu said.