U.S., Taiwanese vice presidents speak at rare encounter in Honduras

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TEGUCIGALPA, Jan 27 (Reuters) - The U.S. and Taiwanese vice presidents had a brief conversation on Thursday at the inauguration of the new Honduran president, a rare encounter that is highly symbolic and provoking anger in Beijing at a time of simmering tension with Washington.

The United States, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, though its strong support for the island both politically and through arms sales is one of the main sources of Sino-U.S. friction.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said she spoke with her Taiwanese counterpart, William Lai, in Honduras about their shared interest in Central America and the U.S. government's "root causes" strategy to curb migration.

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"The brief conversation that we had was really about a common interest in this part of the region and apparently Taiwan's interest in our root causes strategy," she told reporters, adding Lai had approached her.

Taiwan's official Central News Agency characterized it as a "simple greeting", saying the two "talked briefly and interacted naturally".

It carried a picture of them standing next to each other on a stage talking, both wearing face masks, and Lai sporting a lapel pin of entwined Taiwanese and Honduran flags.

Lai told reporters traveling with him that when speaking to Harris he thanked the United States for its "rock-solid" help to Taiwan, and that he thought Harris was a "very capable person", the Central News Agency reported.

China reacted with anger. Its Taiwan Affairs Office said the United States should "take actual steps to put into effect its promises not to support Taiwan independence, and stop playing with fire on the Taiwan issue".

Lai also posted a picture on his Facebook page in which he appeared in a small group photograph being taken with Spanish King Felipe VI, though it did not show them speaking.

Honduras is one of only 14 countries with formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Honduras' new president, Xiomara Castro, floated the idea of ditching Taipei for Beijing in her election campaign, though on Wednesday she told Lai that Honduras is grateful for Taiwan's support and hopes to maintain their relationship.

Castro and Lai met again on Thursday, with Lai handing over a donation of supplies to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I appreciate the solidarity, as well as the willingness to support us in our development agenda," Castro wrote in a tweet.

Lai invited Castro to visit Taiwan, and told her that as both Taiwan and Honduras have close ties with Washington he hoped the three parties could work together to address the country's problems, Taiwan's presidential office said.

Speaking after her meeting with Castro, Harris said they did not discuss China.

Beijing 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 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 neighbor of Honduras, and has openly said it is aiming to reduce the number of Taiwan's diplomatic allies to zero.

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Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Gustavo Palencia; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei and Emily Chow in Beijing; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Michael Perry, Simon Cameron-Moore and Mark Heinrich

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