TAIPEI: Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen will make sensitive stopovers in the United States on her way to and from Central America that could inflame China-US tensions, but Taipei's government would not confirm a meeting with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Taiwanese presidents routinely pass through the United States while visiting diplomatic allies in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific, which while not official visits are often used by both sides for high-level meetings.
The United States, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic relations with Chinese-claimed Taiwan, but is its most important international backer and arms supplier.
China has said it is "seriously concerned" about Tsai's US transit plans, which have already been widely reported in Taiwanese and international media.
Tsai will transit through New York and Los Angeles as part of a trip to Guatemala and Belize, leaving Taipei on Mar 29 and returning on Apr 7, presidential office spokesperson Lin Yu-chan told reporters.
Sources have told Reuters that McCarthy intends to meet her during the California leg of her visit.
Asked whether he could confirm the McCarthy meeting, Taiwan Vice Foreign Minister Alexander Yui said that details of the US transits would be given at a later date once arrangements had been finalised.
An infuriated China staged war games near Taiwan last August following a Taipei visit by then House speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Speaking shortly before Taiwan's announcement of Tsai's trip, a senior US administration official said that her expected transits are standard practice and China should not use them as a pretext for aggressive action toward the democratically governed island.
But the senior US official told reporters on a call on Monday (Mar 20) night that every president of Taiwan had transited through the US, and that Tsai has done so herself six times since taking office 2016, most recently in 2019.
She had met members of Congress during all of those visits, the official added, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic had limited her travel in more recent years.
"We see no reason for Beijing to turn this transit, again, which is consistent with long-standing US policy, into anything but what it is. It should not be used as a pretext to step up any aggressive activity around the Taiwan Strait," the official said.
The official said Washington had communicated to Beijing that Tsai's stopovers are in keeping with past precedent.
"There is nothing new from our point of view," the official said.
Noting that President Joe Biden hoped to speak to Chinese leader Xi Jinping soon and that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would like to reschedule a postponed trip to Beijing, the official said: "We urge the (People's Republic of China) to keep these channels of communication open."
"In terms of contact with McCarthy's office, we offer briefings to members before engagements. We tend to do that before travel, before meetings. We've had some regular contact there," the official added.
Tsai's anticipated US meeting with McCarthy is seen as a potential alternative to a sensitive visit by the Republican speaker to Taiwan, a trip he has said he hopes to make.
Taiwan is China's most sensitive territorial issue and a major bone of contention with Washington, which maintains only unofficial ties with Taipei, but is required by US law to provide the island with the means to defend itself.
China believes that the United States is colluding with Taiwan to challenge Beijing and giving support to those who want the island to declare formal independence.
Taiwan's government says that the People's Republic of China has never ruled the island and so has no right to claim it, and that only its 23 million people can decide their future.