By Jeenah Moon and Ben Blanchard
NEW YORK (Reuters) -Taiwan Vice President William Lai arrived in New York on Saturday at the start of a sensitive U.S. stopover, which China has condemned and Taiwanese officials fear could prompt more Chinese military activity around the democratically governed island.
Lai, the front-runner to become Taiwan’s president in elections in January, is officially making only transit stops in the United States on his way to and from Paraguay for the swearing in of its president next week.
Lai said that he had arrived in New York, on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
“Happy to arrive at the #BigApple, icon of liberty, democracy & opportunities,” Lai posted.
“Looking forward to seeing friends & attending transit programs in #NewYork.”
The China Airlines flight Lai took from Taipei landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport shortly after 8:15 p.m. local time (0015 GMT), according to flight tracking app Flightradar24.
Neither Taiwan nor the U.S. have given exact details about his U.S. schedule, which both are aiming to keep low key, according to officials briefed on the trip.
Laura Rosenberger, chair of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), a U.S. government-run non-profit that carries out unofficial relations with Taiwan, said on X that she would meet Lai in San Francisco.
Taipei and Washington call U.S. stopovers by Taiwanese officials routine and no cause for China to take “provocative” actions, but Beijing has reacted with anger at what it sees as a further sign of U.S. support for Taiwan, which it claims as its own.
China is likely to launch military drills next week near Taiwan, using Lai’s U.S. stopovers as a pretext to intimidate voters ahead of a next year’s election and make them “fear war,” Taiwanese officials say.
Lai, speaking to reporters before leaving Taiwan, made only fleeting mention of the U.S. part of his trip, simply noting he was going to New York first.
Lai’s U.S. stopover will be the 11th by a Taiwanese vice president, according to the State Department, which calls them routine but “private and unofficial.”
Washington does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but is its most important international source of weapons, and the island’s contested status is a constant source of friction with Beijing.
Paraguay is one of the few remaining countries in the world that retains formal ties with Taiwan.
Lai has made one prior U.S. transit as Taiwan’s vice president, in January 2022 on a trip to Honduras, a then-ally of the island that switched its diplomatic recognition to Beijing in early 2023.
Lai said he would use the Paraguay visit not only to deepen ties with that country but also to have “self-confident” exchanges with other countries and meet with delegations from like-minded partners. He did not say who.
This would “let the international community understand that Taiwan is a country that adheres to democracy, freedom and human rights, and actively participates in international affairs,” Lai added.
Lai went to Honduras last year for the inauguration of its president and had a brief though symbolic chat there with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris. The United States has not announced who may be going to Paraguay next week.
Three sources told Reuters the Biden administration was eager to keep Lai’s visit low-profile so as not to stoke tensions before Taiwan’s election and to preserve the recent momentum in U.S. engagements with senior Chinese officials.
That includes the prospect of a visit to the U.S. 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.
Beijing particularly dislikes Lai, who has in the past described himself as a “practical worker for Taiwan independence”. Lai has repeatedly said during the election campaign he does not seek to change the status quo.
Before leaving, Lai wrote in English on X that he was “excited to meet with US friends in transit” and to be going to Paraguay, one of just 13 countries to maintain formal ties with Taipei.
Lai is to return from Paraguay via San Francisco and is due back in Taiwan on Friday, according to the official schedule for the trip published on Saturday, which did not mention the U.S. legs.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard, Fabian Hamcher and Yimou Lee in Taipei, and Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Ben Blanchard and David Brunnstrom; Editing by William Mallard)