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Taiwan's new envoy to US offers assurances to Washington & Beijing

Updated on: 19 January,2024 07:44 AM IST  |  Washington
AP |

Military action in the Taiwan Strait could draw in the United States, which has a security pact with Taiwan to deter any armed invasion from the mainland

Taiwan's new envoy to US offers assurances to Washington & Beijing

Taiwanese President-elect Lai Ching-te

Taiwan's top diplomat in Washington has a message for both the island's Chinese adversaries and its American friends: Don't worry that Taiwan's new president-elect will worsen relations with Beijing and possibly draw the US into a conflict. President-elect Lai Ching-te plans to keep the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, Alexander Tah-Ray Yui told The Associated Press on Thursday in his first interview with an international news organization since he arrived in the US in December.

The Chinese government has called Lai a troublemaker who will push Taiwan toward independence. But Yui said Lai is willing to engage with Beijing, even as the island seeks to strengthen its unofficial ties with Washington for stability in the region. 'We want the status quo. We want the way it is ' neither unification, neither independence. The way it is is the way we want to live right now,' said Yui, Taiwan's de-facto ambassador to the US, noting the stance is largely supported at home and will guide the new administration.

Yui spoke to the AP five days after Lai won the presidential election with more than 40% of the vote in a three-way race. Lai will succeed Tsai Ing-wen when he is inaugurated in May. His victory, which gives the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party an unprecedented third presidential term, was not welcomed by Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its own, to be taken by force if necessary.

Military action in the Taiwan Strait could draw in the United States, which has a security pact with Taiwan to deter any armed invasion from the mainland. Beijing refused to have any dialogue with Tsai because her party rejects China's claim of sovereignty over the island, and before the election had suggested to voters that they could be choosing between war and peace. It remains unclear if Beijing will be willing to engage with Lai, who in the past described himself as a 'pragmatic worker of Taiwan's independence.'

Two days after Lai was elected, China wooed away Nauru, a small Pacific island nation, which has left Taiwan with only 12 countries around the world that recognize its statehood. However, China has not launched massive military exercises around the island, as it has in past times of increased tensions. Yui said Lai intends to follow the same line as his predecessor "but also to offer an olive branch to mainland China by saying that he's also willing to engage with mainland China.'

At the same time, Taiwan will work with the US to boost its defense and deepen economic and cultural ties, Yui said, calling relations with Washington 'one of the most important aspects in our foreign affairs.' The United States does not have a formal relationship with Taiwan, but it has stepped up its support in the past several years, angering China, which has urged the US to 'exercise extreme prudence in handling Taiwan-related issues.' President Xi Jinping told President Joe Biden that Taiwan is the most sensitive issue in US-China relations.

Shortly after Taiwan's election, Biden told reporters that his administration does not support Taiwan's independence. Scott Kennedy, senior adviser and trustee chair in Chinese business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said he expected tensions to remain largely the same under Lai.

'Beijing will continue to develop its military capabilities and push the boundaries of military threats and economic coercion," he said. 'The US will continue to assist Taiwan with its defensive preparedness and push Taiwan to move more assertively on the various elements needed for effective self-defense.' But Kennedy said Beijing may also open up some channels for the two sides to convey messages and reduce misunderstanding. Yui said it is incumbent upon both Beijing and Taipei to keep the Taiwan Strait peaceful.

'I have to stress, we're not the aggressors. We're not the ones, you know, making waves in the Taiwan Strait, making things nervous and tense," he said, alluding to Beijing's increased military activities near the island in the past several years. Yui said Taiwan is determined to safeguard its homeland, noting that the island is increasing its defense budget and has extended the mandatory military service from four months to one year.

He said Beijing's luring away of Nauru was an attempt to punish the Taiwanese people for choosing the leader they wanted and will only backfire. 'They were just trying to find an appropriate time and excuse to slowly pluck all of our allies," Yui said. But, as a technological powerhouse and a democracy, Taiwan has 'become a common word in the international community" and countries around the world have become more willing to engage with it, he said.

Yui, who met with Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson shortly before Taiwan's election, said he's been encouraged by the support from both the Republicans and Democrats. 'If you go to the US Congress, your heart warms up because everywhere you go you meet friends," he said. Sen. Ben Cardin, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Taiwan 'a key US partner in the Indo-Pacific and beyond" and said he would be "working closely with the newly elected leadership of Taiwan to deepen our economic, security, and people-to-people ties.'

Yui, who was born to a diplomat's family, attended high school in Panama and received both his bachelor's and master's degrees from Texas A&M University. He previously served as Taiwan's ambassador to Paraguay and as its vice foreign minister. Before he came to Washington, Yui briefly served as Taiwan's representative to the European Union and Belgium. Yui succeeded Hsiao Bi-Khim, who left the post in November to be Lai's running mate. Hsiao, who is credited with deepening Taiwan-US ties when heading the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States between 2020 and 2023, will be the next vice president.

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