Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (second, right) chats with technicians inside NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston, the first time a sitting Taiwanese leader has been inside a venue of the US federal government. Photo: Presidential Office of Taiwan

Going where her predecessors would not have dared to tread, Tsai Ing-wen on Sunday became the first Taiwanese president to enter a US government venue when she toured the Johnson Space Center in southeastern Houston.

The visit was heavily laden with political significance, as it had long been assumed such places were out of bounds for leaders of the pariah island, even when they were allowed into the US to change flights.

Tsai’s treatment backs up claims that the Taiwan Travel Act, passed  by the US in March to enhance senior-level exchanges with Taiwan, is more than diplomatic posturing. It must be reassuring for Tsai that Washington has delivered on promises to support her administration in the face of a more bellicose stance by Beijing, which contends that Taiwan is a renegade province of China.

“I am grateful to the US for arranging the stopovers,” said Tsai, who also was in Los Angeles on Monday, after state visits to Paraguay and Belize — Taiwan’s two diplomatic allies in Latin America. The US visits were treated as transit stops, and she did not meet with any officials from the Trump Administration.

In her first public address in the US, Tsai told a crowd at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Los Angeles that Taiwan’s desire for freedom and the right to decide its own future were not negotiable.

Tsai (second, right) at the Johnson Space Center. Photo: Presidential Office of Taiwan
Tsai (right) briefed by astronaut Michael Fincke. Photo: Central News Agency of Taiwan
Fincke leads Tsai into a module mockup. Photo: Presidential Office of Taiwan
Tsai signs the exterior of the module mockup. Photo: Presidential Office of Taiwan

The visit to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration facility was undoubtedly the highlight of Tsai’s 27-hour stay in Houston. She toured the iconic Mission Control Center, the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility and the Space Environment Simulation Laboratory, and went inside full-size models of rockets and space station modules, according to a press release from Tsai’s office.

As a courtesy to China, Washington traditionally puts a strict embargo on media appearances by sitting Taiwanese leaders on American soil, but has recently played up its ties with Taipei amid soaring tensions with Beijing over trade and the Chinese role in Asia.

At another Houston event, Tsai met Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and House Representative for Texas Eddie Bernice Johnson.

Read more: Tsai’s brief yet high-profile LA transit stop beefs up Taiwan Travel Act

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