Taiwan president to visit Pacific allies amid China pressure

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan’s president will visit three diplomatic allies in the Pacific next week and could stop-over in U.S. territory, potentially angering China as it seeks to snatch away the self-ruled island’s few remaining friends.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during "A Civil Society Dialogue on Securing Religious Freedom in the Indo-Pacific Region" forum in Taipei, Taiwan March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Last year, China persuaded the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso and El Salvador to forge relations with Beijing, leaving a dwindling number of governments that have formal diplomatic ties with Taipei.

President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the tiny Pacific Ocean countries of Palau, Nauru and the Marshall Islands also comes amid heightened tension between Taipei and Beijing, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as its sacred territory and considers it merely a province with no right to state-to-state ties.

Chinese President Xi Jinping kicked off the new year with a major speech in Beijing threatening to use force to bring Taiwan under its control, though said China would strive to achieve this peacefully.

The aim of Tsai’s eight-day visit, starting on March 21, was to “deepen ties and friendly relations” with Taiwan’s Pacific allies, Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Hsu Szu-chien told a news briefing in Taipei on Thursday.

Taiwan is still in talks regarding a possible stopover in U.S. territory, he added.

A person with knowledge of the matter told Reuters the stopover would most likely be in Guam or Hawaii, with the chance of at least one visit to U.S. territory “very high”.

Democratic Taiwan now has formal ties with just 17 countries, almost all small, less developed nations in Central America and the Pacific, like Belize and Nauru.

Taipei has accused Beijing of offering generous aid and loan packages to lure its allies away, accusations Beijing denies.

The Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, simply answered “Ha ha!” last week when asked by reporters how many of Taiwan’s allies China would take this year.

The United States, like other major powers, maintains a “one China” policy that prevents formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan but it is the island’s largest weapons supplier and most powerful international backer.

That relationship has been boosted under U.S. President Donald Trump, whose administration is eyeing more weapons sales and encouraging official exchanges.

The U.S. ambassador for religious freedom, Sam Brownback, is currently in Taipei, to Beijing’s anger.

China’s hostility to Taiwan has grown since Tsai’s election as Beijing fears she wishes to push for the island’s formal independence.

Tsai says she wants to maintain the status quo but will defend Taiwan’s democracy.

On Monday evening, Tsai called a national security meeting during which she urged the administration to counter Xi’s “one country, two systems” proposal that Beijing uses to push for “reunification” with Taiwan.

Tsai called on government officials to come up with measures to “counter” China’s renewed efforts to “interfere” and to “absorb” Taiwan’s capital and talents.

“The Beijing authorities continue to utilize our open and free system of democracy to interfere with Taiwan’s political, economic and social developments, which has become the biggest risk in Taiwan,” Tsai said in a statement.

The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula, that granted the financial hub a high degree of autonomy.

Reporting By Yimou Lee and Ihwa Cheng; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel