Taiwan leader now expected to stop in US cities of Houston and Los Angeles during South American trip, sources say

Tsai Ing-wen’s US stopovers would come on her way to and back from Mario Benitez’s inauguration as president of Paraguay

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2018, 2:42am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 July, 2018, 6:17am

Washington has agreed to let Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen pass through the US cities of Houston and Los Angeles during her to South America for Mario Benitez’s inauguration as president of Paraguay next month, sources told the South China Morning Post.

Tsai would stop in the cities in the southern state of Texas and the southwest state of California on her way to and from Paraguay, the only South American country among 18 nations that has full diplomatic relations with the self-ruled island, according to two people with close ties to both the US and Taiwan authorities.

Tsai would be greeted and sent off by a deputy-assistant-secretary level diplomat from the US State Department and the chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), one of the sources said.

AIT is a non-profit organisation financed by the US government with a de facto embassy function: maintaining ties the US has unofficially kept with Taiwan since 1979, when Washington switched its diplomatic recognition from the island to mainland China.

China’s government has long objected to the US practice of allowing Taiwan presidents to use American territory for travel, a result of the “one China” policy under which Beijing views Taiwan as a wayward province that could be brought to the mainland’s rule by force if necessary.

The source said local members of the US Congress in Texas and California would also visit with or have phone calls with Tsai. It is unclear how long Tsai’s stay in the US cities would last.

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The US State Department declined to confirm whether the two sides had reached decisions on Tsai’s possible US stops.

In an email, a State Department spokesman said the US “facilitates, from time to time, representatives of the Taiwan authorities to transit the United States”.

“Such transits are undertaken out of consideration for the safety, comfort, convenience and dignity of the passenger and are in keeping with our one China policy,” the email said.

The Post reported late last week that Tsai could pass through airports in Houston, Texas, or Miami, Florida, en route to Paraguay, citing people with close ties to both US and Taiwan authorities.

The selection of Los Angeles, which has a history of hosting transit stops by Taiwanese leaders, came after a Post report saying Tsai was unlikely to be permitted to enter “high-profile” US cities such as Washington or New York during her trip to Paraguay.

Tsai had told reporters on Monday during a visit to Taiwan's eastern county of Taitung that she had not asked the US government for permission to stop in Washington.

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She had said convenience and safety were her primary considerations in arranging the South America trip, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported.

CNA quoted Tsai as saying that Taipei would make details of the trip public as soon as preparations were completed. The Benitez inauguration to which Tsai is invited is to take place on August 15.

Tsai did not comment in the CNA report on the possibility of stopping in New York.

One of the Post’s sources had said that although Washington was “not a viable option” for a transit stop, New York could be, since it had some history of hosting visits by Taiwanese leadership.

Last-minute changes to Tsai’s US transit plans are still possible, the source said early this week.

Richard Bush, who “handled a lot of” the transit of Taiwan leaders and officials during his tenure as AIT’s chairman from 1997 to 2002, told the Post on Wednesday that the US has “an established way” for organising such travel stops.

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Under the one-China policy, Bush said, “senior officials of the Taiwan government, including its foreign minister, do not come to Washington”.

Furthermore, Taiwan’s president, vice-president, premier and vice-premier do not “visit” the US, he said.

“People in those positions transit through the US if they are going to somewhere else,” said Bush, who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

“President Tsai understands very clearly the need to maintain a balance between US-Taiwan relations on the one hand and cross-Strait relations and she does not want to make trouble,” he said.

“She knows that transit through Washington would seriously upset that balance.”

Cory Gardner, a US Republican Senator from Colorado who met Tsai during a trip to Taipei in May, told the Post on Tuesday that he has no plan to link up with Tsai if she stops in the US.

“President Tsai is a very good leader for Taiwan and I look forward to using our relationship to build greater opportunity for US and Taiwan cooperation,” he said on the sidelines of a US Senate hearing in Washington.

In May, Gardner, who also chairs the US Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia, co-introduced the Taiwan International Participation Act of 2018, a bill designed to support the island’s participation in “appropriate” international organisations.