Taiwan president to visit US but no word on House Speaker meeting

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By Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina

TAIPEI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen will make sensitive stopovers in the United States on her way to and from Central America that China's foreign ministry condemned on Tuesday, but Taipei would not confirm a meeting with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Taiwanese presidents routinely pass through the United States while visiting diplomatic allies in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific, which, although not official visits, are often used by both sides for high-level meetings.

The United States, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic relations with Chinese-claimed Taiwan, but is its most important international backer and arms supplier.

Tsai will transit through New York and Los Angeles as part of a trip to Guatemala and Belize, leaving Taipei on March 29 and returning April 7, presidential office spokesperson Lin Yu-chan told reporters. Sources have told Reuters that McCarthy intends to meet her during the California leg of her visit.

Asked whether he could confirm the McCarthy meeting, Taiwan Vice Foreign Minister Alexander Yui said details of the U.S. transits would be given at a later date once arrangements had been finalised.

China staged war games near Taiwan in August after a Taipei visit by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

China has said the United States is colluding with Taiwan to challenge Beijing, and is giving support to those who want the island to declare formal independence.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that it strongly opposed any contacts between the United States and Taiwan's government and that it had already made "stern representations" to Washington about the stop-overs.

"We again warn the Taiwan authorities that there is no way out for Taiwan independence, and any illusions about attempts to collude with external forces to seek independence and provocation is doomed to fail," Wang said.

Guatemala and Belize are two of only 14 countries which maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Honduras said last week it would seek diplomatic ties with Beijing, but has yet to break them off with Taiwan.

STANDARD PRACTICE

Speaking shortly before Taiwan's announcement of Tsai's trip, a senior U.S. administration official said her expected transits are standard practice and China should not use them as a pretext for aggressive action toward the democratically governed island.

The senior U.S. official told reporters on a call on Monday night that every president of Taiwan had transited through the U.S., and that Tsai has done so herself six times since taking office 2016, most recently in 2019.

She had met members of Congress during all of those visits, the official added, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic had limited her travel in recent years.

"We see no reason for Beijing to turn this transit, again, which is consistent with long-standing U.S. policy, into anything but what it is. It should not be used as a pretext to step up any aggressive activity around the Taiwan Strait," the official said.

The official said Washington had communicated to Beijing that Tsai's stopovers are in keeping with past precedent.

"There is nothing new from our point of view," the official said.

Noting that President Joe Biden hoped to speak to Chinese leader Xi Jinping soon and that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would like to reschedule a postponed trip to Beijing, the official said: "We urge the PRC (People's Republic of China) to keep these channels of communication open."

"In terms of contact with McCarthy's office, we offer briefings to members before engagements. We tend to do that before travel, before meetings. We've had some regular contact there," the official added.

Tsai's anticipated U.S. meeting with McCarthy is seen as a potential alternative to a sensitive visit by the Republican Speaker to Taiwan, a trip he has said he hopes to make.

Taiwan is China's most sensitive territorial issue and a major bone of contention with Washington, which maintains only unofficial ties with Taipei, but is required by U.S. law to provide the island with the means to defend itself.

Taiwan's government says the People's Republic of China has never ruled the island and so has no right to claim it, and that only its 23 million people can decide their future.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Sarah Wu in Taipei and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Stephen Coates and Gerry Doyle)