Taiwan vice-president elect William Lai to attend high-profile US prayer breakfast

Taiwan's vice-president elect William Lai has angered China by saying he is a "realistic worker for Taiwan independence". PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Taiwan's vice-president elect William Lai will go to this week's high-profile National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, he said on Monday (Feb 3), an event traditionally attended by US presidents and which President Donald Trump was at last year.

Mr Lai, who assumes office in May, has angered China by saying he is a "realistic worker for Taiwan independence", a red line for Beijing which considers the island merely a Chinese province with no right to state-to-state relations.

Taiwan says it is an independent country called the Republic of China, its official name.

Mr Lai's trip comes after incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen, Mr Lai's running mate, won re-election in a landslide last month.

Mr Lai wrote on his Facebook page that he was going in an individual capacity.

The National Prayer Breakfast, which was started in 1953, takes place on Feb 5 and 6 and is hosted by members of the US Congress.

Mr Lai added he would also express his thanks to US politicians who have supported Taiwan's bid to enter the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Taiwan is excluded from the WHO - as it is most international bodies - due to objections from China, which says the island can only participate if it recognises itself as part of China, something Taiwan's government has refused to do.

"Lai is a pretty radioactive figure for Beijing as he is seen as a stoking horse for independence within Tsai's circle," said Dr Shelley Rigger, a political science professor focusing on Taiwan and China at Davidson College in North Carolina.

"Beijing will react strongly, so there's a lot of risks for Taiwan and Tsai in a (possible) meeting between Lai and Trump."

Taiwan and the United States do not have formal diplomatic ties, but Washington is Taipei's most important international backer and main supplier of arms.

Taiwanese politicians frequently travel to the US, but visiting Washington itself has remained off-limits to senior government officials over American concerns of angering Beijing.

The trip by Mr Lai - who served as premier under Ms Tsai between 2017 and 2019 - is the latest signal of staunch US support for Taiwan in recent years, including Congress's passing the Taiwan Travel Act to encourage more Cabinet-level Taiwanese officials to visit the US and the Trump administration's approval of a US$8 billion (S$10.95 billion) sale of 66 new F-16 fighter jets to the island last year.

It won't be the first time Mr Trump has angered China over Taiwan.

As president-elect, he accepted a phone call from Ms Tsai, the first time an incoming US commander-in-chief has had direct contact with a Taiwanese leader in 40 years.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the call as a "little trick pulled off by Taiwan."

Since the independence-leaning Ms Tsai came into office in 2016, China has frozen all contact with Taiwan and steadily increased diplomatic, military and economic pressure on her government, including attempts to lure away Taipei's few remaining allies.

Mr Lai's visit could invite further sanction from Beijing.

"It's entirely possible that (Trump) will freak out if he gets criticised too heavily or he comes under pressure with his phase one deal," Dr Rigger said in a telephone call.

"No matter what happens it will just intensify pressure on Taiwan more."

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