TAIPEI - Taiwan’s Vice President William Lai, a front-runner in the island’s planned January presidential elections, announced this week that he plans to make transit stops in the U.S. next month on his way to Paraguay, sparking swift protest from China. Beijing objects to any action that could raise Taiwan’s international profile and has pledged to keep the transit stops from happening.
Analysts say that while it is unlikely that China will succeed, the transit stopovers are likely to test already tense ties between Beijing and Washington.
"Beijing will try to link the stopover to the high-level engagement between Taiwan and the U.S. over the last year and they will look for opportunities to frame this as the U.S. being provocative," Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA.
Details have yet to be released of where Lai might stop in August and what he might do in the U.S. Taiwan’s Presidential Office has said Lai will attend the swearing-in ceremony of Paraguay’s newly elected president, Santiago Pena, on Aug. 14.
The planned stopovers are not a first for Lai, but this time he is traveling while he is the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate in the January vote. Beijing is highly skeptical of him because he is a member of the DPP and also because of his stance on Taiwan’s sovereignty. A former doctor turned politician, Lai has previously described himself as a "pragmatic Taiwan independence worker."
Despite Beijing's claim that the island is a part of its territory, both Lai and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen argue that the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name, is already an independent state.
Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations. Beijing took over its seat in 1971. Currently, only 13 countries, including Paraguay, have formal diplomatic relations with the island.
"Beijing distrusts Lai even more than they distrust Tsai Ing-wen," said Bonnie Glaser, the managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She said Beijing believes U.S. support may embolden current or future leaders in Taiwan to pursue independence.
Like many other countries, the United States does not have formal ties with Taiwan, but it is the island’s biggest international backer.
'Priority' to stop visit
Speaking at the Aspen Security Conference on Wednesday, Xie Feng, China’s ambassador to the U.S., said it was Beijing’s priority to stop Lai from visiting the U.S. and emphasized that the provocative moves by "Taiwan separatists" should be contained.
In addition, China’s foreign ministry said that Beijing opposes any official interaction between Taiwan and the U.S. and that the Taiwan issue is the insurmountable red line that cannot be crossed in U.S.-China relations.
"The Chinese are very alarmed about what could happen and they are warning that their red lines should be taken seriously," Glaser said.
Despite warnings from Beijing, Taipei, and Washington both emphasized that Lai’s transit stops in the U.S. are planned based on the principle of "comfort and safety" and that China should not use the stopover to "start a fight."
During a press conference Wednesday, Sandra Oudkirk, the director of Washington’s de facto embassy in Taiwan, said transits by Taiwanese officials in the U.S. have happened many times before and are part of the routine.
In January of last year, Lai transited through the U.S. during a 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. In April of this year, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen also made two stopovers in the U.S. as part of a trip to Central America.
Another military blockade drill?
China views Taiwan as an inseparable part of its territory and has long voiced opposition to high-level interaction between officials from Taipei and those in other countries. That has not stopped a growing number of officials, legislators and leaders from visiting Taiwan, and officials from Taipei traveling to other countries.
In response, China has stepped up its military activities around the island. Over the past year, Beijing launched two multiday, blockade-style military exercises around Taiwan to protest high-profile meetings. One drill followed a meeting between President Tsai and former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, when she visited Taiwan last August and another after she met with current U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California in April.
Glaser said that while Beijing’s response will likely be determined by the agenda during Lai’s stopovers in the U.S., the outside world should not rule out any possible scenarios.
"[Even though] I don’t think Lai will do any public events, if he did give a speech or said something that is viewed as provocative by the Chinese leadership, that would give them a reason to do something in the military realm," she said.
Still, she said she thinks Beijing would have to be "very alarmed" by things that Lai did in order to execute a military response that matches what they did when Pelosi visited Taiwan.
Other analysts added that based on past experience, China has learned that high-profile demonstrations of displeasure toward the Taiwanese government through military maneuvers or military drills often backfire, especially during the island’s election season.
"Since this is a presidential campaign year, if Beijing follows this reasoning, they will likely resort to condemnation and perhaps some form of symbolic suspension of dialogue or economic sanctions on selected commodities," Wen-ti Sung, a political scientist with the Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program, told VOA.
In his view, past experience may convince China that heightening military pressure on Taiwan will only backfire when Taiwanese voters are about cast their ballots to elect their next president.
Washington’s balancing act
Lai’s scheduled stopover in the U.S. comes at a tricky time for Washington. Over the past few weeks, it has tried to restart diplomatic engagement with China. Analysts think efforts to reduce tension between the world’s two largest economies may cause the U.S. to make its engagements with Taiwan less public in the coming months.
"Taiwan and the U.S. will maintain the same level of exchanges, but Washington’s public rhetoric about Taiwan may be milder," said Charles Wu, a professor in international relations at National Chengchi University in Taiwan.
Rather than reducing interaction with Taiwan, Wu said he thinks the U.S. will likely put "guardrails around interaction" to make sure it doesn’t affect progress made in restoring dialogue with China.