By Ryan Woo and Ben Blanchard
BEIJING/TAIPEI (Reuters) -China on Sunday condemned a brief U.S. visit by Taiwan Vice President William Lai, saying he was a separatist and “troublemaker through and through,” and Beijing would take strong steps to protect its sovereignty, drawing a rebuke from Taipei.
Lai, front-runner to be Taiwan’s next president at elections in January, arrived in New York late on Saturday for what was officially billed as a transit stopover on his way to Paraguay for the inauguration of its president.
China, which claims democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory, has repeatedly denounced Lai’s trip, which includes another stopover in San Francisco on Wednesday on his way home.
The United States, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but is its most important international backer and arms supplier and is required by U.S. law to provide the island with means to defend itself.
Washington walks a fine line in allowing such stopovers by Taiwanese officials, telegraphing support for Taiwan without unduly angering China, which views them as provocative moves toward independence.
China’s foreign ministry in a statement issued shortly after Lai landed in New York said it opposed any form of visit by “Taiwan independence separatists” to the United States.
“Lai stubbornly adheres to the separatist position of Taiwan independence and is a troublemaker through and through,” the ministry said.
Taiwan is the “core of China’s core interests” and facts have shown again and again that the reason for the rise in tensions in the Taiwan Strait is Taiwan trying to “rely on the United States to seek independence,” it said.
“China is closely following developments and will take resolute and vigorous measures to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” it said.
Taiwan’s China-policymaking Mainland Affairs Council said China was the real troublemaker, pointing to its standoff this month with the Philippines in the South China Sea and continued military harassment of Taiwan, among other actions.
“Our government firmly defends national sovereignty and security, guards the lines of defence of democracy and freedom, and will never back down, let alone capitulate,” the council said in a statement.
China especially dislikes Lai, who has previously described himself as a “practical worker for Taiwan independence,” though he has repeatedly said on the campaign trail that he is not seeking to change the status quo and that only Taiwan’s people can decide their future.
MILITARY DRILLS EXPECTED
Lai, greeted by supporters waving flags as he arrived at his New York hotel, posted on messaging platform X, formerly known as Twitter, that he was “looking forward to seeing friends and attending transit programs in New York.”
Laura Rosenberger, chair of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), a U.S. government-run non-profit that carries out unofficial relations with Taiwan, on X said she would meet Lai in San Francisco.
China is likely to launch military drills this week near Taiwan, using Lai’s U.S. stopovers as a pretext to intimidate voters ahead of next year’s election and make them “fear war,” Taiwanese officials say.
The Eastern Theatre Command of China’s People’s Liberation Army, which is responsible for the area around Taiwan, on Sunday posted on its WeChat account a short video of fighter jets practicing dog fights at an undisclosed location.
It said its forces had recently been engaged in “high-intensity flight training.”
Lai’s stopovers come as Beijing and Washington are trying to improve relations.
That includes a possible U.S. visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, which could pave the way for a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s leader Xi Jinping this year.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Yimou Lee in Taipei and Jeenah Moon in New York; Editing by William Mallard and Jamie Freed)