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Trump will not meet Tsai during US stopover

HOUSTON — Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was in Houston yesterday for a brief transit stop during her trip to Central America, with China scrutinising the proceedings for signs that President-elect Donald Trump might further engage the self-ruled island.

Ms Tsai at the Omni Houston Hotel during a transit stop en route to Central America. She said the visit to Central America would ‘show the international society that Taiwan is a capable and responsible partner for cooperation’. Photo: Reuters

Ms Tsai at the Omni Houston Hotel during a transit stop en route to Central America. She said the visit to Central America would ‘show the international society that Taiwan is a capable and responsible partner for cooperation’. Photo: Reuters

HOUSTON — Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was in Houston yesterday for a brief transit stop during her trip to Central America, with China scrutinising the proceedings for signs that President-elect Donald Trump might further engage the self-ruled island.

Trump transition spokeswoman Jessica Ditto said in an email on Saturday that the President-elect would not be meeting with the Taiwanese leader while she is in the United States, nor will members of his transition team.

Mr Trump had sounded unaware of the potential trip when he was asked about it on New Year’s Eve.

“Nobody’s ever mentioned that to me,” he told reporters. “I’m not meeting with anybody until after (the inauguration on) Jan 20, because it’s a little bit inappropriate from a protocol standpoint. But we’ll see.’’

Ms Tsai was passing through Houston on a trip she says is intended to bolster Taiwan’s international profile by reinforcing ties with diplomatic allies in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador. China has been angered by her refusal to endorse Beijing’s concept that Taiwan and the mainland are a single Chinese nation.

Dozens of supporters stood outside in near freezing temperatures as Ms Tsai arrived at a Houston hotel. She shook some hands and posed for selfie photos. She did not address the media which was kept some distance away.

The State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security reportedly adopted high-level security measures for her transit, during which she visited a museum of fine arts and Taiwanese businesses in the city. She also met some members of the Taiwanese community in Houston.

A State Department Spokesman said on Friday that allowing Taiwanese leaders to make stopovers in the US is part of a “longstanding practice” to provide comfort to the traveller, adding that there was nothing unusual in Ms Tsai’s transits.

Speaking to reporters before departing Taiwan, Ms Tsai said the visit to Central America would “show the international society that Taiwan is a capable and responsible partner for cooperation”.

Beijing has urged Washington to prevent Ms Tsai from landing in the US to “refrain from sending any wrong signal to the Taiwanese independence forces”.

Beijing regards the self-governing island as part of China and officials complained after Mr Trump last month breached diplomatic protocol by speaking by phone with the Taiwanese leader. Mr Trump raised further concerns in Beijing when he questioned a US policy that since 1979 has recognised Beijing as China’s government and maintains only unofficial relations with Taiwan.

In late December, in what Beijing called routine exercises, China’s first and only aircraft carrier and a fleet of warships sailed past Taiwan’s south, prompting Taipei to deploy fighter jets to monitor the fleet.

Ms Tsai is likely to keep the US transits low-key to avoid further irking China.

“I’m confident that both Taiwan and the US want this transit to be low profile,’’ said Ms Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “There is nothing to be gained by irritating Beijing.”

In Central America, Ms Tsai will focus on strengthening ties with allies to fend off Beijing’s efforts to draw governments away from Taipei and further diminish its global presence.

Beijing and Taipei have competed for allies for much of the nearly seven decades since the end of China’s civil war in 1949, when the defeated Nationalist government fled across the Taiwan Strait. Just 21 countries and governments, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean, now have official ties with Taipei.

Ms Tsai is scheduled to make another stopover in San Francisco on Friday, after leaving El Salvador on her way back to Taiwan. This is her second overseas trip since taking office in May last year. AGENCIES

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