New Honduras leader says she hopes to maintain Taiwan ties

TAIPEI, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Honduras is grateful for Taiwan's support and hopes to maintain their relationship, President-elect Xiomara Castro said on Wednesday after meeting Taiwan's vice president, in a reassuring message to Taipei which has fretted about losing an ally.

Honduras is one of only 14 countries with formal diplomatic relations with Chinese-claimed Taiwan. Castro floated the idea of ditching Taipei for Beijing in her election campaign.

China has ramped up pressure to reduce Taiwan's international footprint, saying the democratically governed island is Chinese territory with no right to state-to-state ties.

In comments to Taiwanese media after meeting Vice President William Lai, who is in Honduras for the presidential inauguration, Castro thanked Taiwan.

"The people of Honduras are always grateful to the people of Taiwan for their support that they have always given us," she said, in a video clip carried by Taiwan's official Central News Agency. "We have worked together hand in hand for many years and hope to maintain this relationship."

Lai had been due to hold formal talks with Castro and deliver materials to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, but that was cancelled, the Central News Agency said, adding they met later for about seven minutes.

Lai posted a picture on Twitter of him meeting Castro and wrote in English: "Honoured to attend the transfer of power ceremony tomorrow, and help strengthen the friendship between our democratic countries".

Taiwan's foreign ministry said Castro had merely adjusted the time of their meeting owing to the fact she was still dealing with a domestic political crisis.

Castro assumes office embroiled in a dispute with dissidents in her own party.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is also going to Castro's inauguration, potentially giving Lai a chance to meet her, though U.S. officials have suggested to Reuters that there would not be a formal meeting.

In the run-up to the November election, a visiting U.S. delegation to Honduras made clear it wanted the Central American country to maintain its Taiwan relations.

The United States has worried about growing Chinese influence in its back yard.

China last month re-established relations with Nicaragua, a neighbour of Honduras, and has openly said it is aiming to reduce the number of Taiwan's diplomatic allies to zero.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Gerry Doyle

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.