President Tsai Ing-wen on Saturday began her second overseas visit since taking office, leaving behind intensifying fallout from her administration's reform efforts.
The delegation for the nine-day trip, which will take in visits to four Central American allies, departed at around 10 a.m., just hours before enraged pension reform protesters massed on a public hearing and as fears emerged over a new labor law's effect on department store staff.
Speaking at the Taoyuan airport before departing on an EVA Air charter flight, Tsai said the trip was aimed at strengthening ties with Taiwan's diplomatic allies and expanding bilateral cooperation with other countries.
However, Tsai's transit stops in the U.S. cities of Houston and San Francisco are being more closely watched than the visit to Central America itself, with speculation that she may meet with members of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's transition team.
Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank said she was "confident that both Taiwan and the U.S. want this transit to be low profile ... There is nothing to be gained by irritating Beijing."
Tsai's travel plans have already irked the Chinese government. Asked to comment last week, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said: "We hope that the U.S. side can follow the 'one China' policy and the three joint communiques, disallow the Taiwan leader's transit in the U.S. (and) refrain from sending any wrong signals to pro-independence forces in Taiwan."
Stateside Stopovers Just for 'comfort': US
Washington on Friday defended the transit stops, saying they were part of a "long-standing practice" to provide comfort to travelers and that there was nothing unusual about them.
Asked whether any current U.S. official would make contact with Tsai during her stopovers, the spokesman, John Kirby, said he was "not able to speak about the details" of discussions that might occur.
Tsai's office has refused to fully clarify who she would meet during the stopovers in the U.S., saying only that the president would meet with Taiwanese expatriates there as well as visit the technology industry in Houston and the innovation industry in San Francisco.
In June 2016, Tsai made stopovers in Miami and Los Angeles during a visit to Central and South America, her first overseas trip as president.
At the time, she met with several U.S. congressmen during the stopovers and spoke with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the phone while in Miami.
Similar arrangements would also be made for Tsai this time, a source told CNA.
To be continued with www.chinapost.com.tw