SAN FRANCISCO Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen completed a nine-day visit on Jan. 15 to Central America with two layovers in the U.S., the island's most important strategic partner, dogged by Chinese military threats and saber-rattling.
Upon her return to Taiwan, Tsai said she wanted to boost economic partnerships with the island's Central American allies in the future.
"Taiwan's industries need to look for opportunities globally, and Central America has potential," Tsai said. "We will encourage companies to find projects in which they can work together with our allies and come up with win-win strategies."
Although Tsai did not meet with anyone close to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, as some Taiwanese news organizations had speculated she might, she still received some influential political figures, including Sen. Ted Cruz, a former presidential candidate.
Most of Tsai's itinerary in Houston and San Francisco was not open to press coverage due to a longtime understanding between Taipei and Washington to keep U.S. transits by a Taiwanese leader discreet, partly to avoid antagonizing China.
While the U.S. and Taiwan do not have formal ties, it is customary for the Taiwanese president to make stopovers in the U.S. whenever he or she visits the island's diplomatic allies in Central America.
Despite the furtive nature of the visit, hundreds of pro-Chinese protesters rallied outside the San Francisco hotel where Tsai stayed on Jan. 14 when she was out visiting the headquarters of social media company Twitter.
They waved the Chinese national flag and expressed their dismay at Tsai, who Beijing considers to be a staunch supporter of the island's continued independence from the mainland. They denounced her as a "troublemaker" and shouted their opposition to Taiwanese independence.
TIGHTENING THE SCREWS The rally was one of several attempts to tighten the screws on Tsai during her weeklong Central America tour.
On Jan. 11, China's first and only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailed through the Taiwan Strait while returning from an exercise in the South China Sea. The warship refrained from crossing the midline respected by the two sides, but the incident nonetheless caused alarm in Taiwan.
On the same day, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi used an official visit to pledge a $40 billion investment in Nigeria, in addition to the $45 billion Beijing has already injected into the African country, according to the Nigerian state news agency, NAN.
Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Geoffrey Onyeama simultaneously demanded Taiwan shut down the island's representative office in the capital Abuja and relocate to Lagos, the country's largest city and economic center, NAN reported.
Reacting to the report in San Salvador, Tsai said Beijing's move would only hurt its relations with Taiwan.
"We have noticed that mainland China has taken some measures recently ... but those moves are not beneficial to the maintenance of peaceful, stable ties" between Taipei and Beijing, Tsai told Taiwanese reporters at the El Salvadorean capital on Jan. 13, according to Taiwan's Central News Agency.
LONGTIME ENMITY Taiwan and China split in 1949 at the conclusion of a long-running civil war. China continues to claim Taiwan as part of its own territory and has not renounced the use of force to achieve eventual unification with the self-ruled, democratic island.
Chinese officials also vehemently object to any attempt by Taipei to forge diplomatic ties with other countries and Taiwan's participation in international events, in an effort to deny recognition of the island's sovereignty.
As a result of China's growing political and economic clout, now only 21 countries in the world recognize Taiwan. Aside from the Vatican, most are small developing countries.
Tensions between Taipei and Beijing have been on the rise since Tsai came into office in May. Chinese officials have reduced the number of tour groups permitted to visit Taiwan and suspended high-level dialogue between the two camps.
China's condemnations of Tsai did not prevent her from meeting with a number of senior U.S. politicians during a Houston transit stop at the beginning of her tour, ahead of meetings with the presidents of Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador in their respective countries.
During her layover, Cruz visited her in person, revealing to reporters that Chinese officials had asked him to decline a meeting with Tsai.
Tsai held further talks with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott; Sen. John McCain; Randall Schriver, a former Bush administration official who is reportedly being considered for the position of assistant secretary at the Department of Defense; and Ed Feulner, founder of Washington-based conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation and a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump.
On her return, Tsai visited the San Francisco headquarters of social media platform Twitter and was greeted by general counsel Vijaya Gadde, though CEO Jack Dorsey was not present for the occasion, according to the Central News Agency.
Later, Tsai attended the opening ceremony of the Asian Silicon Valley Development Agency, an initiative to help foster Taiwanese startups backed by her government. She also lunched with some 800 Taiwanese expatriates before returning to Taiwan.
ONE CHINA RETHINK The Taiwanese leader's trip came as Trump and Chinese officials continue to trade barbs over bilateral relations and Beijing's unilateral claim over Taiwan.
The U.S. is Taiwan's sole arms provider and most important strategic partner in the island's defense against China. Washington is bound by law to provide Taiwan with weapons of a defensive nature.
Trump told The Wall Street Journal in an interview published on Jan. 13 that he is considering a rethink of the "One China" policy that has served as the cornerstone of bilateral ties between Washington and Beijing for four decades.
"Everything is under negotiation, including One China," Trump said when asked whether he supported the policy.
It was the second time in a month the U.S. president-elect had hinted at abandoning Washington's refusal to recognize Taiwan diplomatically in exchange for cooperation with China on various issues.
Following his comments, China's Foreign Ministry warned that any change to the One China policy would have serious consequences.
"One China principle serves as the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and it is not negotiable," China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters.
"We urge stakeholders in the U.S. to recognize the high sensitivity of the Taiwan issue and abide by the commitment made by previous U.S. governments, both Republican and Democratic ... so there will not be any impact on the healthy and steady development of China-U.S. ties and cooperation between the two sides on important fields," Lu said.
Beijing's One China principle refers to its unilateral assertion that Taiwan belongs to China. With the One China policy, the U.S. acknowledges Beijing's stance but does not actively support the view.