U.S. official says support of Taiwan has never been stronger

TAIPEI (Reuters) - The United States’ commitment to Taiwan has never been stronger and the island is an inspiration to the rest of the Indo-Pacific region, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong said on Wednesday, in comments certain to anger Beijing.

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Wong was speaking during a visit to Taipei at a time of increased hostility between the self-ruled island and Beijing and just a day after Chinese President Xi Jinping issued his strongest warning against Taiwan separatism to date.

China claims Taiwan as its own and considers the self-ruled island a wayward province, which Xi said on Tuesday would face the “punishment of history” for any attempt at separatism.

The island is one of China’s most sensitive issues and a potential military flashpoint. Underlining that threat, Taiwan sent ships and aircraft earlier on Wednesday to shadow a Chinese aircraft carrier group through the narrow Taiwan Strait, its defense ministry said.

“Taiwan can no longer be excluded unjustly from international fora. Taiwan has much to share with the world,” Wong said at a reception attended by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.

“I can assure you, the United States government and the United States private sector will do their part to ensure Taiwan’s stellar international example shines brightly.”

Beijing is already furious over a law signed last week by U.S. President Donald Trump that encourages the United States to send senior officials to Taiwan to meet Taiwanese counterparts and vice versa.

President Tsai welcomed the new law on Wednesday.

“We were pleased President Trump signed the Taiwan travel act into law. We are grateful to the Trump administration and to members of the congress for supporting this bill,” she said.

Taiwan’s defense ministry said earlier that the Chinese carrier group, led by the mainland’s sole operational aircraft carrier the Liaoning, entered the Taiwan Strait late on Tuesday, but kept on its western side.

By midday on Wednesday it had left Taiwan’s air defense identification zone heading southwest, the ministry said, adding that it looked like China was conducting drills.

Taiwan’s military sent ships and aircraft to shadow the carrier group the entire way but spotted nothing out of the ordinary and people in Taiwan should not be concerned, it added.

China’s Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Taiwan says China has ramped up military exercises around the island in the past year or so.

China suspects Taiwan’s Tsai wants to push for formal independence for the island, which would cross a red line for Communist Party leaders in Beijing. Tsai has said she wants to maintain the status quo and is committed to ensuring peace.

Separately on Wednesday, China announced that a former ambassador to the United Nations, Liu Jieyi, has been appointed head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. Veteran diplomat Liu has been deputy head of the office since October last year.

Reporting by Fabian Hamacher and Twinnie Siu; Writing by Ben Blanchard and Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Himani Sarkar