Senior US official to visit Taiwan this weekend amid China concerns

US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar pays his respects to Lee Teng-hui in Taipei, Aug 12, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Keith Krach will visit Taiwan for a memorial service for former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui on Saturday (Sept 19), the US State Department said, a move likely to anger Beijing as US-China ties are at their lowest ebb in decades.

Wednesday's announcement of the trip had been widely expected after the senior U. diplomat for East Asia, David Stilwell, said last month that Washington would bolster ties with Taiwan by establishing a new bilateral economic dialogue.

He said subsequently that Krach would lead it.

However, the State Department statement made no mention of the dialogue, and analysts said this appeared to reflect disagreement in the U.S. administration as to how proceed on economic issues with Taiwan and caution about going too far in upsetting Beijing.

On Monday, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin was asked about the possibility of a visit by Krach to Taipei and said China firmly opposed official exchanges between the United States and Taiwan, while warning of serious damage to China-US relations.

Taiwan's government said Krach's visit would start on Thursday, likewise making no direct mention of economic talks.

The presidential office said Krach is due to meet President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday evening.

US Health Secretary Alex Azar visited Taiwan last month, the highest level US official to travel to the island since Washington broke off diplomatic ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing in 1979.

Taiwan experts said they believed Krach would be the most senior State Department official to make a public visit since 1979.

"The United States honours President Lee's legacy by continuing our strong bonds with Taiwan and its vibrant democracy through shared political and economic values," a State Department statement said announcing Krach's trip.

Lee Teng-hui, who died on July aged 97, was dubbed "Mr Democracy" for burying autocratic rule in Taiwan in favour of freewheeling pluralism.

He thrived on defying China's drive to absorb an island it regards as a wayward province.

Derek Scissors, a China expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think-tank, said the decision for Krach to attend the memorial allowed for further discussion on a formal structure for economic talks.

"While China will oppose any visit by American officials to Taiwan, the US chose to represent this as a one-time event,"he said.

"That will be seen in a better light by Beijing than starting a series of visits."

The United States, like most countries, has official relations with Beijing, not Taiwan, but Washington is bound by law to help Taiwan defend itself and is its main arms supplier.

Reuters reported earlier on Thursday that Washington plans to sell as many as seven major weapons systems, including mines, cruise missiles and drones to Taiwan, as President Donald Trump ramps up pressure on China ahead of his November re-election bid.

Douglas Paal, a former US representative in Taiwan, said Beijing would want to avoid making the Chinese relationship more prominent than it already was in the US election, while Trump would not want to damage his Phase 1 trade deal with China.

"I don't think this visit crosses the brightly lit red line that would force China to show a strong reaction," he said.

"So it is sucking it up, offering only ritual objections.

"Moreover, Beijing recognises that Trump will not authorise his subordinates to get really bold with China, perhaps for fear of losing Chinese agricultural purchases in the Midwest before the election."

Taiwan has long sought a free trade agreement with the United States but Washington wants to rebalance a big trade deficit and remove barriers for US agricultural products.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen announced last month that Taiwan would from allow in US pork containing ractopamine, an additive that enhances leanness, and US beef more than 30 months old.

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