The vice presidents of Taiwan and the United States had a brief exchange at the inauguration of Honduras’ new leader, the island’s state media reported Friday, a first encounter that will likely stoke US-China tensions.
China considers democratic, self-ruled Taiwan a part of its territory, to be retaken by force if necessary, and says its status is one of the most sensitive issues in Beijing’s dealings with Washington.
US President Joe Biden has largely kept the tough approach to Beijing of his predecessor Donald Trump, with both administrations seeing a rising China as the top challenge of the 21st century.
William Lai and Kamala Harris shared “a simple greeting” in which both “spoke briefly” during Thursday’s ceremony to swear in Honduran president Xiomara Castro, Taiwan’s Central News Agency said.
Their conversation was the first public interaction between US and Taiwanese vice presidents since Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979, according to Fan Shih-ping, a political analyst at Taiwan’s National Normal University.
The exchange was likely kept as a “natural interaction in a tacit understanding between Taipei and Washington to avoid rattling China too much,” he told AFP.
“It also shows US’s support for Taiwan and its diplomatic relations with Honduras as China becomes increasingly active to go after Taiwan’s diplomatic allies.”
The US government is careful not to officially recognise Taiwan but the island enjoys broad, bipartisan support in Congress.
Taiwan’s presidential office has not commented on the interaction, only saying Lai “exchanged greetings with the representatives from various countries and interacted with them naturally.”
Lai’s visit to Honduras comes as China intensifies its campaign to isolate Taiwan on the world stage.
Last month, Nicaragua switched its allegiance to Beijing, leaving neighboring Honduras as one of just 14 countries that still diplomatically recognise Taiwan rather than China.
But concerns over its relations with Taiwan have mounted following pro-Beijing remarks by Castro, the Latin American country’s first female leader, while campaigning.
When meeting Lai the day before her inauguration, Castro had “expressed hope for a firm friendship going forward,” Taiwan’s presidential office said in a statement.