Minister of National Defense Tang Yao-ming (湯曜明) is shrugging off China's angry demands that he skip a gathering of US officials and businesses in America, the first time in 20 years Taiwan's top military leader participated in such an event.
After arriving in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Sunday for the private US-Taiwan Business Council's convention, Tang told reporters that he wasn't worried about China's protests.
Tang told TVBS cable news, "The Republic of China is a sovereign nation. I think that as the defense minister, if a country invites me to visit, I'm going to go."
He is the first defense minister to make more than a transit stop in the US for at least 22 years.
Tang told reporters at the conference site in Tampa Bay that he did not plan to discuss specific weapons purchases such as the four Kidd-class destroyers in the pipeline, diesel-electric submarines or P-3 maritime anti-submarine aircraft.
Instead, he said he would discuss "procurement policy in general" now that the administration of US President George W. Bush has begun to treat Taiwan more like any other customer for US-built weapons.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly are also due to give keynote speeches to the conference, billed as a "defense summit" by its private organizers.
China has condemned the US for issuing a visa to Tang and said the move would damage US-China ties.
US officials in Washington said that Wolfowitz plans to meet with Tang. However, when asked on Sunday if he planned to hold talks with Wolfowitz, Tang said the only scheduled contact would be in the conference hall.
Tang was due to address the session yesterday.
Tang's visa underlines the Bush administration's bolder stance on arms shipments than that of its predecessors, US China experts said.
"It demonstrates that the administration recognizes a growing threat to Taiwan from China's military buildup," said Larry Wortzel, director of Asian studies at the Heritage Foundation.
Retired rear admiral Eric McVadon, the US defense and naval attache in China from 1990 to 1992, said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had sent a similar message by "drastically curtailing" US military-to-military contacts with China.
"The Defense Department appears to be driving home to China that we plan to emphasize our relationship with Taiwan and are not interested in fostering warm ties with the PLA, [People's Liberation Army]," McVadon said.
The organizer of the three-day, closed-door conference is the US-Taiwan Business Council, which was founded in 1976. Its chairman is Frank Carlucci, a secretary of defense under former US president Ronald Reagan.