TAIPEI - Taiwanese Vice President William Lai will attend the inauguration of the first female president of Honduras, Xiomara Castro, on Thursday in a move to shore up the relationship between Taipei and Honduras, one of Taiwan's few remaining diplomatic allies.
Honduras is one of only 14 countries that maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Last month, its neighboring country, Nicaragua, severed ties with Taiwan and re-established relations with Beijing, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province that someday will be reunified with the mainland. Taipei views itself as a self-governing state.
Speaking at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport before his departure, Lai said he would take medical supplies to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic in Honduras. According to Reuters, since 2006 Taiwan has loaned Honduras around $205 million and given another $27 million in donations.
During a layover in Los Angeles on Tuesday, he held an online meeting with U.S. lawmakers to discuss bilateral trade relations and the threats posed by China, according to the Taipei Times.
In this photo released by the Taiwan Presidential Office, Taiwan Vice President William Lai waves to supporters during a stopover in Los Angeles, Jan. 25, 2022. Lai is leading a Taiwanese delegation to Honduras for the inauguration of President-elect Xiomara Castro Jan. 27-28.
"Honduras is an important ally of Taiwan in Central America," he said Tuesday. "On this trip, we will bring a variety of Taiwan-made disease prevention equipment to give to the people of Honduras, taking concrete action to demonstrate our strong support for the Taiwan-Honduras alliance and the new Honduran administration on the first day of President Castro's term." Less than 50% of the Honduran population is fully vaccinated, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.
During her campaign, Castro, a member of the left-wing Liberty and Refoundation Party (Libre), said she would re-establish diplomatic relations with China if elected, according to the Taiwan News. After a November trip by high-level officials from the U.S. State Department, who expressed the hope that Honduras would maintain its relationship with Taiwan, Castro backtracked and signaled support for Taiwan by retweeting congratulations from its president, Tsai Ing-wen.
US ties valued
Gerardo Torres, Libre Party secretary of international relations, said after Castro was elected on November 28 that the incoming administration would not sever ties with Taipei. "Nobody in the party wants to enter government distancing ourselves from the United States," he said on December 10, according to the Taipei Times.
I believe that we have a responsibility to [Taiwan] as someone with whom we have had a good relationship," said Rodolfo Pastor, a foreign policy adviser to Castro, according to the website Dialogo Chino.
"But I do believe that we also have a responsibility to our own population to be realistic, to be pragmatic and to understand that mainland China today plays a determining role that we cannot let go unnoticed," Pastor said.
Analysts told VOA Mandarin that Castro was unlikely to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan after the U.S. intervention.
"It's not really about what we have done to consolidate the bilateral relationship with Honduras, it's more about the U.S. factor," Ko Yu-Chih, an associate professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei, told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview.
FILE - In this photo released by the Taiwan Presidential Office, outgoing Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, left, exchanges gifts with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen during a meeting in Taipei, Taiwan, Nov. 13, 2021.
Chang Kuang-Chiu, an associate professor at Chihlee University of Technology in Taipei, agreed. He said that because the U.S. is the largest trade partner of Honduras, and the U.S. military maintains the Soto Cano Air Base in the Central American country, "Honduras will likely make their relations with the U.S. as a priority."
Meanwhile, there was speculation that Lai will meet unofficially with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who also is attending the inauguration.
A White House official on Wednesday told VOA Mandarin that "there are no plans for her [Harris] to meet with VP Lai while in Honduras."
While there is no official diplomatic relationship between the United States and Taiwan, informal meetings between U.S. officials and Taiwan leaders on stopovers in the U.S. have become an institutionalized part of bilateral relations.
Zhu Fenglian, spokesperson for China's State Council Office on Taiwan Affairs, said on Wednesday at a daily briefing that China strongly opposed any form of official contact between Taipei and Washington.
"The DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] authorities are using the so-called 'transit trip' to seek official contact with the United States and opportunities for independence," she said. "No matter what trick they use, it will not change the fact that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is a part of China."
Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told VOA Mandarin that observers who follow relations between China and Taiwan are keeping an eye on whether Harris and Lai will have any meaningful interaction on the margins of the inauguration, and if so, what messages are shared.
"Traditionally, international inaugurations, funerals and multilateral events, such as APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] conferences, are the venues where senior U.S. and Taiwan officials have opportunities to be in direct, personal contact. If the U.S. has a message it would like to convey to VP Lai, this inauguration presents a unique opportunity to do so," he told VOA Mandarin in an email.
Avoiding 'great disturbance'
Ko, of the National Chengchi University, argued that it's possible the two leaders might have an opportunity to exchange a few words, but that the U.S. was unlikely to arrange a talk on the sidelines because it would anger China.
"If there is such an arrangement, it will cause a great disturbance in Sino-U.S. relations, which is also not beneficial for the stability of Taiwan," she said. "The Biden administration is now dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic at home and Ukraine crisis abroad. Taiwan is not really a priority for the U.S. at this time."
Hass, of Brookings, said Lai's layovers in the U.S. follow long-standing American policy in consideration for the safety, comfort, convenience and dignity of Taiwanese officials.
"It reflects the Biden administration's efforts to maintain a steady, principled approach to its Taiwan policy," he said. "I do not expect the transit to deviate in any significant way from established practice."