Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen arrived in the United States Thursday, warning that democracy in her homeland faced renewed threats from “overseas forces,” in comments seemingly aimed at China.
Tsai is heading to the Caribbean, stopping over in the US for a total of four nights, an unusually long transit period that has resulted in strenuous objections from Beijing.
China claims the self-governed island of 24 million as part of its territory and has urged the US not to allow Tsai to transit there while on overseas tours.
Typically Tsai spends just a night in the US while visiting regional allies. During this trip she is expected to spend two nights in New York, where Taiwan maintains a large unofficial consulate, and two nights on the return leg in Denver. There is no official itinerary for her visit or indication of whether she will meet with US officials.
In a meeting with United Nations representatives of Taiwan’s 17 diplomatic global allies Thursday, Tsai struck a defiant tone. “Taiwan will firmly defend our democratic system. Our democracy has not come easily and is now facing the threat and penetration of overseas forces,” said Tsai.
Outside her New York hotel, clashes broke out between pro-Taipei and pro-Beijing protesters, Taiwan’s official news agency CNA reported.
Tsai’s extended stay, which comes amid a protracted trade dispute between the US and China, risks inflaming tensions and furthering the perception that the White House is seeking to bolster ties with Taipei.
On Monday the US State Department approved the potential sale of more than $2 billion in tanks and anti-air missiles to the Taiwan military, sparking a furious reaction from Beijing.
Taiwan has been self-ruled since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, which saw the Communist Party take control of the mainland and the Nationalist government forced to flee to the island.
Tsai’s 12-day itinerary is aimed at shoring up relations with four Caribbean nations that continue to formally recognize the government in Taipei and not Beijing, and includes stops in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia and Haiti.
In a speech prior to her departure from Taiwan early Thursday, Tsai pledged to use the trip to increase international cooperation. “Freedom, democracy and sustainability are the Taiwanese values we want to share with all our good friends in the world,” said Tsai. “We will by no means restrict ourselves to a small corner of the Taiwan Strait.”
Though the US broke formal diplomatic relations with Taipei in 1979, it continues to maintain close ties with Taiwan.
In May, US National Security Adviser John Bolton met with one of Taiwan’s top defense officials, David Lee, the first meeting between the top security advisers of both governments since the formal split.
“Our interest in Taiwan, especially as it relates to these military sales, is to promote peace and stability across the straits, across the region,” US State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus said in advance of Tsai’s arrival in New York, Tuesday.
“There’s no change, of course, in our longstanding ‘One China’ policy,” added Ortagus, referencing the policy under which Washington officially recognizes the Communist government in Beijing as the only legal government of China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has regularly called for the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland, even refusing to rule out force in a major speech in January.
Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe told an audience in Singapore in June that if anyone attempted to “split” Taiwan from China, “the Chinese military has no choice but to fight at all costs for national unity.”
Tsai is currently faced with an uphill battle for re-election in elections scheduled for January, against an resurgent opposition Nationalist party — known as Kuomintang — and is said to have attempted to polish her anti-Beijing credentials in a bid to win votes.