Taiwan Vice President William Lai says the self-ruled island will not be intimidated by threats from mainland China.
Lai made the comments at a luncheon Sunday in New York City, a day after arriving on a stopover on his way to Paraguay to attend the inauguration of the South American country’s new president.
He told supporters that "once again at this time and place, that no matter how great the threat of authoritarianism is to Taiwan, we absolutely will not be scared nor cower, we will uphold the values of democracy and freedom."
Lai, a Harvard-educated doctor turned politician is the front-runner in Taiwan’s upcoming presidential elections.
He has previously described himself as a "practical worker for Taiwan independence," but on the campaign trail he has stressed that he is not seeking to change the current situation. He has also expressed willingness to be friends with China.
China claims Taiwan as part of its national territory, although the island has been self-ruled since it split from the communist-ruled mainland in 1949 after a long civil war. Beijing has vowed to annex the island by any means necessary, including a military invasion.
The Chinese foreign affairs ministry issued a statement Sunday denounced Lai as a "troublemaker through and through" who "clings stubbornly to the separatist position for 'Taiwan independence.'"
The ministry also said China "deplores and strongly condemns the U.S. decision to arrange the so-called stopover," adding that Beijing firmly opposes "the U.S. government having any form of official contact with the Taiwan region."
The ministry warned that it could take "resolute and strong measures" in response to the visit.
China has deployed 79 military aircraft and 23 naval vessels to areas near Taiwan since Sunday, according to Taiwan's National Defense Ministry. Among them, 25 military craft have crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait or intruded Taiwan's southwestern and southeastern air defense identification zone.
During the past year, China staged two large-scale military exercises around Taiwan in response to visits, once after then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei last August and again in April when Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen met with current House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California.
Following Tsai's stopover in California and meeting with McCarthy and other U.S. lawmakers, Beijing staged a multiday, blockade-style military exercise around Taiwan.
Lai made similar transit stops in the U.S. in January 2022 as part of his trip to Honduras. During those stopovers, he conducted online meetings with former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Tammy Duckworth and met with members of the Taiwanese community.
Laura Rosenberger, the chair of the American Institute in Taiwan – a U.S. government-run nonprofit that manages unofficial relations with Taiwan – confirmed on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, that she would be meeting with Lai when he transits back through San Francisco Wednesday before returning to Taiwan.
Taiwanese presidential candidates have visited the U.S. during election campaigns in the past, but experts say Lai’s role as Taiwan’s sitting vice president will make Washington handle his transit more carefully because it does not want to be perceived as endorsing Lai.
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"The U.S. can neither treat Lai too well nor too badly, so letting him transit through New York and San Francisco is a compromise in my opinion," Chen Fang-yu, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taiwan, told VOA.
Chen added that at a time when Washington hopes to have more military and diplomatic engagement with China, with Washington inviting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to visit Washington next month, it will try to make Lai’s stopovers "less formal" to avoid triggering any overreaction from Beijing.