US plans first cabinet visit to Taiwan in 14 years

Environmental protection chief, first cabinet-level official sent by Washington since 2000, seen by analysts as key in boosting ties

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 12:58pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 April, 2014, 4:52pm

The United States' top environmental official will visit Taiwan in the first trip to the island by a US cabinet-level leader in 14 years, officials said yesterday.

Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, will travel to Taiwan and Vietnam from today to Wednesday to discuss co-operation, her agency said in a statement.

The trip would be the first by a cabinet-level US official to Taiwan since 2000, when then US president Bill Clinton sent transportation secretary Rodney Slater.

Beijing frequently protests against any hint of international recognition for Taiwan, which it considers a province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

But tensions have abated markedly since President Ma Ying-jeou was elected in 2008 on a platform of improving relations with the mainland through economic and cultural co-operation.

Beijing has appeared eager to support Ma and in February held its first formal meeting with a Taiwanese government official since their 1949 split.

Still, McCarthy's visit, which had long been expected, was announced with a low-key statement over the weekend.

The Environmental Protection Agency said McCarthy would meet environmental officials and "other leading Taiwan authorities" and deliver a speech at the National Taiwan University.

Taiwan's government was set up by Nationalist forces who fled in 1949 after defeat in China's civil war.

For McCarthy, the trip will probably be a rare action that has won approval from the rival Republican Party, which has strongly criticised her for spearheading regulations to fight climate change. Taiwan is a popular cause for US lawmakers of both parties, who regularly visit the island even though Washington officially recognises only Beijing.

Tao Wenzhao, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the environmental protection chief's portfolio was not a politically sensitive area for Beijing.

"[Sending McCarthy] could alleviate US domestic pressure on the [Barack] Obama administration to strengthen strategic security relations with Taipei.

"For Taiwan, she is a ministerial official, but to the mainland this is not a sensitive office."

Shen Shishun , a research fellow at the China Foundation for International Studies, said the Obama administration had sent several senior officials to Beijing recently.

These include defence chief Chuck Hagel's visit last week. "At the same time the US has to reassure its ally Taiwan," Shen said.