An official with US president-elect Donald Trump’s transition team on Saturday said that neither Trump nor transition officials would be meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who stopped in the US on her way to Central America.
Still, Tsai’s trip will be scrutinized by Beijing for any signs that Trump’s team plans to risk its ire by further engaging with Taiwan.
Tsai, who departed Taipei on Saturday, pledged to bolster Taiwan’s international profile as she set off on a trip to reinforce relations with diplomatic allies in Central America, a task that has taken on new urgency as Beijing ramps up efforts to diplomatically isolate Taipei.
Speaking to reporters before her departure, Tsai said the visits to Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador would “show the international society that Taiwan is a capable and responsible partner for cooperation.”
She transited through Houston, Texas, a stop that will irk Beijing, which has urged Washington to prevent Tsai from landing in the US to “refrain from sending any wrong signal to the Taiwanese independence forces.”
Beijing complained after Trump last month breached diplomatic protocol by speaking by telephone with Tsai. Trump raised further concerns in Beijing when he questioned the US’ “one China” policy.
US lawmakers often meet with Taiwanese presidents when they transit through the US — most recently in June, when Tsai met in Miami with US Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
Trump transition team spokeswoman Jessica Ditto on Saturday said in an e-mail that neither the president-elect nor members of his transition team would be meeting with Tsai while she is in the US.
Trump sounded unaware of the potential trip when he was asked about it on New Year’s Eve.
“Nobody’s ever mentioned that to me,” he told reporters. “I’m not meeting with anybody until after Jan. 20, because it’s a little bit inappropriate from a protocol standpoint. But we’ll see.”
Tsai is likely to keep the US stops low-key to avoid further inflaming tensions with China, which has been angered by her refusal to endorse Beijing’s concept that Taiwan and China are part of a single Chinese nation.
Late last month, in what Beijing called routine exercises, China’s first and only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and a flotilla of warships sailed past the south of Taiwan, prompting Taipei to deploy fighter jets to monitor the fleet.
“I’m confident that both Taiwan and the US want this transit to be low profile,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There is nothing to be gained by irritating Beijing.”
Tsai is leading a delegation of 120 people. She is to attend the inauguration of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
She said she would also interact with the heads of state of other countries at the inauguration.
Observers were watching to see if any of the four Central American nations might defect despite Tsai’s efforts, but say stronger US support under Trump’s administration would help balance future diplomatic losses.
“We should expect that in the Trump administration the US would be more vociferous and emphatic about Taiwan’s participation in international organizations,’’ said Ross Feingold, a Taipei-based senior adviser at DC International Advisory, a consulting firm whose chief executive has been consulted by the Trump transition team.
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