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Analysts: US, Taipei Aim to Keep Taiwan VP Transit Stops Low-Key

FILE - The ruling Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate William Lai waves during the party congress of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taipei, July 16, 2023.
FILE - The ruling Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate William Lai waves during the party congress of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taipei, July 16, 2023.

Taiwan’s vice president and presidential front-runner, William Lai, departs Saturday on a seven-day trip to Paraguay. Along the way, he will make transit stops in New York and San Francisco, something China has strongly protested.

While the United States and Taiwan have characterized Lai’s stops as "routine" for Taiwanese officials, China says it firmly opposes such "sneaky visits," especially by someone like Lai, a politician Beijing has branded a Taiwan "independence separatist."

Analysts say Taipei and Washington will try to ensure Lai’s stopovers 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.

So far, Taiwanese authorities have not revealed details of Lai’s itinerary, but sources with knowledge of the arrangement told VOA that he may hold events with the Taiwanese American community. On his way to attend the inaugural ceremony for Paraguayan President-elect Santiago Pena, Lai will stop in New York on Saturday and make another stop in San Francisco on 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.

Beijing’s response

With about five months to go before Taiwan holds its hotly contested presidential election, Lai’s transit stops come at a sensitive time for Taipei, Beijing, and Washington.

Lai has been consistently leading in most opinion polls but his track record of characterizing Taiwan as a sovereign state has increased the Chinese government’s distrust in him.

China views Taiwan as an inseparable part of its territory and has long opposed high-level engagement between officials from Taiwan and other countries. In recent years, Beijing has increased the frequency of deploying fighter jets and naval vessels into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone or crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which serves as an unofficial demarcation between Taipei and Beijing.

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.