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Taiwan

US planning to let Taiwan leader use American airports en route to Paraguay, despite Beijing concerns

Tsai Ing-wen will transfer on flights to and from Mario Benitez’s inauguration next month as president of Paraguay

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 July, 2018, 5:48am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 July, 2018, 6:38pm

Washington plans to allow Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen to pass through airports in southern US cities when she travels to South America next month for Mario Benitez’s inauguration as president of Paraguay in what would be a show of support for the self-ruled island, sources have said.

People with close ties to both US and Taiwan authorities said that Tsai could pass through airports in Houston, Texas, or Miami, Florida, en route to Paraguay, the only South American country among 18 nations with full diplomatic relations with Taipei.

To avoid antagonising China, with which the administration of US President Donald Trump is locked in a trade war, the US is “very unlikely” to let Tsai enter high-profile cities such as Washington or New York, one of the sources said.

Another source said that Washington was “not a viable option”, but that New York could be a choice, since it has some history of hosting visits by Taiwanese leadership.

Taiwan has yet to confirm if Tsai will accept Paraguay’s invitation and the island’s foreign ministry said if she did decide to visit, the presidential office would make an announcement and give further details.

The sources said that Washington and Taipei may not have decided yet on which city to ask to serve as a transit point for Tsai. It is also possible that Tsai could stop in “a previously unvisited spot”, one source said.

If made, Tsai’s stops in the US would potentially push the island further into the middle of the rising geopolitical tensions over Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait and the tit-for-tat US-China trade war.

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Beijing’s objection to the US allowing the Taiwan president to use American territory for travel stems from the “one China” policy under which Beijing views Taiwan as a wayward province that could be brought to its rule by force if necessary.

Since taking office in May 2016, Tsai has traveled through US territory three times during overseas trips.

In an e-mail on Thursday, a US State Department spokesman said that “the United States 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 spokesman said.

China’s top Taiwan affairs official last week decried Washington’s Taiwan-related actions after two US Navy warships passed through the Taiwan Strait on what the US Defence Department called a “legally permissible transit”.

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Liu Jieyi, director of the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office and China’s former ambassador to the United Nations, denounced the US willingness to play the “Taiwan card” to show its support for the island’s desire for independence.

“We staunchly oppose any move that harms China’s national interest. We won’t accept that,” Liu was quoted as saying during a forum on cross-strait ties in Hangzhou.

Such military activities – along with allowing Taiwanese leaders to make stops on American soil – symbolise the US government’s coninued support of Taipei despite the absence of formal diplomatic ties.

Washington severed diplomatic relations with the island when it fully recognised the People’s Republic of China in 1979.

Still, under the Taiwan Relations Act approved that year, Washington must treat the island as an ally and support its defence through arms sales and military help to maintain a status quo of non-confrontation across the Taiwan Strait. 

At the same time, the US maintains what observers sometimes call a “dual deterrence” policy, which puts constraints on both the mainland and the island.

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The goal for the US has been to “try to deter China from using force [to unify Taiwan] and Taiwan from creating tension by independence”, said Michael Fonte, an envoy to the US from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

Thus, the US government has manoeuvred carefully in hosting Taiwanese leaders while trying not to provoke Beijing.

In May 1995, Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s president from 1988 to 2000, became the first sitting Taiwan leader since 1979 to be permitted to enter the US when he spoke at his alma mater, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Lee’s appearance triggered a cross-strait crisis. Beijing cut off semi-official contact with the US and began conducting military exercises that culminated with the firing of Chinese missiles into the sea near Taiwan.

Lee’s successor, Chen Shui-bian, also stopped in New York for two nights in late May 2001 while en route to Latin America. He also returned to Taiwan through Houston, in early June of that year.

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However, five years later, then-US president George W. Bush denied Chen transit in the US as Washington grew increasingly irritated with Chen’s confrontational drive for Taiwan independence.

Ma Ying-jeou, Tsai’s predecessor from the former ruling Kuomintang Party, also passed through Boston and Los Angeles on his way to and from Latin American nations that were allies during his presidential terms.

Tsai, soon after her inauguration as Taiwan’s leader, made her first 24-hour US transit stop in Miami while travelling to Paraguay and Panama. Panama switched its diplomatic allegiance from Taipei to Beijing last year.

In January and October of 2017, Tsai also passed through US territory, making stops at the island of Guam; Houston, Texas; and San Francisco, California.

Speculation has grown that the US could grant Tsai transit through Washington after the US Congress this year unanimously approved and Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act, encouraging Taiwan high-level officials to enter the US.

Shirley Kan, a former Taiwan specialist at the US Congressional Research Service, said that since 1994, the US response to requests from the island’s presidents for passage into the US has evolved. From initially denying Lee Teng-hui’s entry, it advanced to allowing restricted transit for Chen Shui-bian.

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Washington then relaxed its restrictions in favour of visit-like “transits” for the safety, comfort, convenience and dignity of former president Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai, Kan wrote in the Taipei Times after Tsai’s last transit in October.

Since the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act, China has repeatedly warned the US to refrain from official contacts with Taiwan or improving relations with the island in substantive ways.

In May, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, repeated that the one-China principle “touches upon the political foundation of China-US relations” during a joint Washington news conference with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“We would urge the US to honour the one-China principle and the stipulations in the three Joint Communiques and prudently and properly manage Taiwan-related issues to uphold the overall interests of China-US relations and peace and stability across the straits,” Wang said.

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Beijing also urged the US to “avoid having official contacts with Taiwan or trying to improve their relations in substantive ways, and stop military contacts and arms sales with Taiwan”, according to Geng Shuang, a spokesman at the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Ruan Zongze, a former minister-counselor for political affairs at the Chinese embassy in Washington, said that China would do “whatever it can” to defend the one-China principle.

“China has no interest in backing off,” he said.