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International relations

Taiwan's next VP visits Washington and attends Trump event

William Lai is island's highest-ranking official in US capital since 1979

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Feb. 6.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- In another sign of ever-closer ties between the U.S. and Taiwan, the island's vice president-elect took part in a gathering in Washington attended by President Donald Trump.

William Lai became Taiwan's highest-ranking official to visit the U.S. capital in four decades, capping his trip by joining the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday.

The invitation-only event was attended by leaders from more than 100 countries and hosted by members of Congress. Some analysts say Lai's visit shows Washington is maintaining support for Taipei, even after signing an initial trade deal with Beijing.

"Vice President-elect Lai's visit is yet another breakthrough in improving U.S.-Taiwan ties under the Trump administration," Sean King, a scholar at the University of Notre Dame's Liu Institute for Asia & Asian Affairs, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Whether Trump happens to meet Lai this week or not, Beijing will be unhappy either way."

While stressing it was a personal trip, Lai said in a Facebook post on Monday that he wanted to thank his American friends for supporting Taiwan's bid to join the World Health Organization, and would visit think tanks and expatriates during his visit. Under Chinese pressure, the WHO has excluded Taiwan from discussions about the new coronavirus.

Taiwan Vice President-elect William Lai, left, and President Tsai Ing-wen celebrate at a rally after their election victory, outside the Democratic Progressive Party headquarters in Taipei on Jan. 11.   © Reuters

Lai, a former premier, was Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's running mate in a sweeping presidential election victory in January, in which her China-skeptic Democratic Progressive Party also kept its parliamentary majority.

No official as senior as Lai has visited Washington since the U.S. severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979. Planned visits by dignitaries such as the president, vice president, prime minister and defense minister have all been blocked by the U.S., and the Taiwanese president has only been able to make stopovers in the U.S. on trips to other countries. No senior officials have ever met the U.S. president.

Lai's trip comes less than a month after Washington inked the first phase of a trade deal with Beijing, and as China is battling the coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 400 people and infected over 25,000.

Tsai used her acceptance speech to underscore her tough stance against China. "The result of this election clearly has added significance because [the people] have shown that when our sovereignty and democracy are threatened, the Taiwanese people will shout our determination even more loudly back."

Washington and Taipei have moved closer since Tsai was first elected in 2016. She spent more than 10 minutes on the phone with Trump shortly after he won the White House the same year, in the first top-level interaction between the two sides since 1979. Congress has also passed several Taiwan-related bills during Trump's term, such as an act that allows visits to the island by high-ranking American officials, as well as approving arms sales.

Brent Christensen, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington's de facto embassy on the island, said during the Taiwanese election campaign that the U.S. was aware of China's efforts to influence Taiwan's democratic process and that it would work closely with Taiwan to combat disinformation.

Christensen was also the first foreign diplomat Tsai met the day after her reelection. She said during the meeting that U.S.-Taiwan relations "have already grown from a bilateral partnership to a global partnership."

China and Taiwan split in 1949 after a civil war. Beijing views the island as part of its territory and has made various attempts to block the island from participating in international affairs and building diplomatic ties with other countries.

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