Taiwan has been caught off guard by the last-minute cancellation of a visit by Kelly Craft, the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations, after the US state department halted all planned diplomatic travel to focus on the change of government in Washington.
Craft, whose scheduled trip had caused consternation in Beijing, had been due to arrive in Taipei on Wednesday on a US government plane, but the visit was called off by the US state department hours before she set off.
In a statement on Tuesday US time, state department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the cancellations of travel were aimed at ensuring a “smooth and orderly transition” of governments in Washington from Donald Trump’s administration to that of Joe Biden.
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It comes amid an ongoing furore over the Trump administration’s role in inciting last week’s violent attack on the US Congress.
Craft had been scheduled to visit Taiwan from Wednesday to Friday. Taiwan’s presidential office and foreign ministry expressed regret over the aborted trip.
“We respect the decision of the US state department to cancel all planned travel of US officials, including Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo [to Europe], and we feel regret that ambassador Craft is unable to visit Taiwan as scheduled,” presidential spokesman Xavier Chang said on Wednesday.
The foreign ministry said in a statement that it understood the decision was made to facilitate the transition of government in the US, and that Craft was welcome to visit at an appropriate time.
Craft would have been the first US ambassador to the UN to visit Taiwan since the US switched its diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979. Beijing claims democratic self-ruled Taiwan as its territory, to be brought into its fold by force if necessary.
The last Taiwan visit by an American ambassador to the UN was by George Ball in 1968, when Taiwan and the US still maintained official ties.
The Taiwanese government had made full preparations for the trip, including waiving Taiwan’s two weeks of Covid-19 quarantine for Craft and her delegation provided they had negative coronavirus test results and travelled as a group during their three-day stay.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was scheduled to meet Craft on Thursday morning and have lunch with her, while Craft was due to give a speech in the afternoon for foreign envoys, government officials and students, to be followed by a press conference.
The planned trip received mixed reactions in Taiwan. Some people said it could help promote Taiwan, with Craft set to speak about the island’s international space, while others dismissed it as a waste of taxpayers’ money and be counterproductive given the strong protests from the mainland Chinese government.
“The main purpose of her visit is to discuss how to reinforce the US government’s support for Taiwan’s international space,” Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said Monday.
Sun Ta-chien, a former legislator for main opposition party the Kuomintang and now a political commentator, said Craft was not a senior enough politician to influence the US’ Taiwan policy.
“Her visit would create trouble for Taiwan as it would stoke cross-strait tension further,” he said on Tuesday.
Beijing had accused the US of violating the one-China principle with the visit, saying it would pay a “heavy price”. It has repeatedly urged the US not to have official contact with the island.
The US state department did not immediately respond to a query asking whether the cancellation of travel was related to China’s threats.
As US-China relations have worsened, the Trump administration has made moves to bolster its ties with Taipei, including multiple arms sales and sending a cabinet-level official, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, to the island – the highest-ranking US official to travel there since 1979.
Azar’s August visit was followed by that of undersecretary of state Keith Krach in September. Beijing has since sent warplanes to Taiwan’s air identification zone almost daily and staged war games near the island.
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