TAIPEI/BEIJING – A top United States official will visit Taiwan in December according to Taiwanese authorities, marking the third trip by an American bureaucrat to the island this year and sparking Chinese fury amid growing tensions between Beijing and Washington.
Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s representative to the US, was the first to announce the visit by Environmental Protection Agency head Andrew Wheeler on Thursday.
Hsiao said the EPA head would be in Taipei in December, according to the island’s state news agency.
Premier Su Tseng-chang told reporters that the government welcomed the visit by the head of the EPA, at the invitation of Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, for bilateral discussions about international cooperation on environmental issues.
“It will further improve ties between the two sides,” Su told reporters in response to questions about Wheeler’s trip, without providing further details.
The Taiwanese government invited Wheeler in December last year to travel to the island in early 2020. But the two sides delayed the visit due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Presidential Office said in a statement on Friday that Taipei and Washington were discussing the visit and the foreign ministry would confirm it once finalized.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Friday reiterated China’s objection to visits by American officials to Taiwan, which Beijing considers a rebel province that must be reunified with the rest of the country.
China “firmly opposes” official interaction between the US and Taiwan, Zhao told reporters.
“China will make necessary and legitimate reactions as the situation develops,” he said.
Wheeler would be the third top US official to visit Taiwan this year.
In August, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar became the highest-ranking US official to make an official visit to Taipei since 1979 when Washington broke off ties with Taipei.
Later, Undersecretary of State Keith Krach visited the island in September.
The visits came at a time of high tension between China and the US on several fronts, including trade and technology.
Beijing reacted angrily to the visits by Azar and Krach.
As Krach was still in Taiwan, China sent at least 18 warplanes near the international boundary in the Taiwan Strait, triggering a tense standoff between Taipei and Beijing over the visit of the top US official.
Taiwan is one of the most sensitive issues for Beijing and China has said on several occasions that it intended to recover the territory by force if necessary.
Although Washington has no official diplomatic ties with Taipei, the US has continued to maintain exchanges, particularly military sales, with Taiwan.
During his tenure, outgoing US President Donald Trump prioritized strengthening ties with Taiwan.