China condemns US stopover by Taiwan VP, warns of 'strong' response

Supporters gather while Taiwan's Vice President William Lai arrives at the Lotte Hotel in Manhattan in New York City, Aug. 12, 2023. [Reuters]

China's foreign ministry was quick to voice its opposition to a transit stop in the United States by Taiwan's Vice President William Lai as he travels to Paraguay, warning Sunday that it could take "resolute and strong measures" in response to the visit.

In its Sunday statement, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said: "China deplores and strongly condemns the US decision to arrange the so-called stopover," adding that Beijing firmly opposes "the US government having any form of official contact with the Taiwan region."

Lai, the statement added, "clings stubbornly to the separatist position for 'Taiwan independence,'" and that he is a "troublemaker through and through."

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.

Before departing, Lai spoke to reporters but barely mentioned the United States. Arriving at his hotel in New York, he was greeted by dozens of supporters, who waved U.S. and Taiwan flags, as well as the green and white banner of his ruling Democratic Progressive Party. As the crowd shouted, "Go Taiwan!" "Go Vice President!" others waved flags that read "Keep Taiwan Free." One supporter held a sign that said: "Against War on Taiwan."

On his social media feed on X, formerly Twitter, Lai wrote that he was happy to arrive in the Big Apple, and that he was "looking forward to seeing friends & attending transit programs in #New York."

Analysts say that during Lai's stopovers, Taipei and Washington will try to ensure that they do not further exacerbate U.S.-China tensions, but the visit comes as challenges to relations between the world's two biggest economies continue to mount.

"Taiwan and the U.S. will try to make this trip meaningful for Lai but not in a way that pokes the bear," Lev Nachman, a political scientist at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, told VOA.

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.

"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.

"Diplomatically, the U.S. would like to avoid too many surprises," he said.

Lai will be in New York for just about a day before heading on to Paraguay on Sunday. Taiwanese authorities have revealed few details of Lai's itinerary, but sources with knowledge of the arrangement told VOA that he may hold events with the Taiwanese-American community.

After his arrival on Sunday, Laura Rosenberger, the chair of the American Institute in Taiwan - a U.S. government-run nonprofit that manages unofficial relations with Taiwan - confirmed on X that she would be meeting with Lai when he transits back through San Francisco Wednesday before returning to 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 Senator Tammy Duckworth and met with members of the Taiwanese community. This time, it is unclear whether he will have such high-level discussions and how Beijing may respond to any of his activities.

Beijing's response

China views Taiwan as an inseparable part of its territory and has long opposed high-level engagement between officials from Taiwan and other countries. Over the past year, China staged two large-scale military exercises around Taiwan in response to visits, once after Pelosi's visited to Taipei last August and again in April when Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen met with U.S. 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.

This time, experts think Beijing will launch a military response to Lai's stopovers in the U.S., but the scale will depend on how "official-looking" his trip is. "This includes who he meets with, what he says, and how public those meetings are," Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group, told VOA.

As Taiwan gears up for the presidential election, Hsiao said she thinks Beijing will try to moderate its response to Lai's transit stops, as any reaction deemed too provocative could help increase Lai's chance of winning the election. However, she added that Beijing also worries about sending the wrong signal if its responses are deemed too weak.

"They may respond with a small-scale military exercise, and it can simply be an increase in what they already do on an almost daily basis," she said.

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.

Making a good impression

For Lai, the trip is an opportunity to make a good impression and his positions both on relations with China and the U.S. clear.

Before departing for the trip, in an interview with Taiwanese broadcaster SETN, Lai emphasized that Taiwan is not a part of China, expressed his willingness to "be friends" with China, and highlighted the importance of Taiwan's relationship with the U.S.

"Pushing away our best partner, the U.S., would be unwise," he said.

Analysts say Lai has largely inherited the "four commitments" put forward by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in 2021, which focus on defending Taiwan's democratic system, safeguarding Taiwan's sovereignty, pushing back against pressure from China, and letting Taiwan's people determine the island's future.

"Tsai's approach has earned international recognition so it's a safe approach for Lai and the Democratic Progressive Party," Chen from Soochow University told VOA.

Nachman from National Chengchi University said he thinks Lai should continue to try to make a good impression on the U.S. government.

"He needs to prove that he can be 'Tsai Ing-wen 2.0' and this trip is one of the big tests," he told VOA.