The US now effectively recognizes Taiwan as a sovereign nation. Image: AFP Forum

China has again warned the United States to stop holding official meetings with senior figures in the Taiwan government, marking a new escalation of tensions over the self-governing island Beijing considers a renegade province.

Beijing expressed its latest complaint after Taiwan Vice-President Lai Ching-te held a brief informal talk with US Vice-President Kamala Harris during a trip to Honduras and a virtual meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a stopover in the United States.

The meetings came soon after China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sent 52 military planes into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) last week, significantly as tensions escalated between Russia and Western-backed Ukraine.

Meanwhile Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the US, told National Public Radio (NPR) in an interview that China and the US could face a “military conflict” over the future of Taiwan, which the top envoy characterized as the “biggest tinderbox” between the two countries.

“If the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the US, keep going down the road for independence, it most likely will involve China and the US, the two big countries, in a military conflict,” Qin told NPR on January 28.

Qin’s statement, analysts noted, was unusually direct as China in the past usually spoke in more general terms, such as warning “the US should not play with fire.”

While Russia-Ukraine tensions ratcheted up last week, forcing the US to commit troops to Eastern Europe, some speculated that the PLA could launch an attack on Taiwan contemporaneous with a Russia invasion, confronting the US with a two-front war scenario.

The PLA sent 39 warplanes to Taiwan’s surrounding areas on January 23 and deployed 13 more, including for the first time two J-16D electronic warfare jets, to the island’s ADIZ the following day.

Mainland military commentator Song Zhongping said the PLA not only wants to demonstrate air supremacy in a potential war with Taiwan, but also that it has an edge in electronic warfare.

Although Russia and the US are still negotiating over Ukraine, most commentators believe the potential for an armed conflict breaking out in the Taiwan Strait is still small, particularly at a time when Beijing is preparing to host the Winter Olympics, which start on Friday.

Taiwan Vice-President Lai Ching-te’s brief chat with Harris has ruffled feathers in Beijing. Photo: WikiCommons

On January 28, US Vice President Harris and her Taiwanese counterpart Lai were seen having a chat during the inauguration ceremony of the new leader of Honduras, according to a photo provided by the Office of the President in Taiwan.

Harris later told the media that Lai had approached her and the half-a-minute conversation with him was “brief” and about a “common interest” in Central America. She said they did not discuss China.

“The brief conversation that we had was really about a common interest in this part of the region and apparently Taiwan’s interest in our root causes strategy,” Harris said. Harris said she did not have any official meetings with Lai.

On Harris’ Facebook page, only Lai’s hands were shown in a picture with Harris at the event.

Lai said he had thanked Harris for the US government’s support for the self-ruling, democratic island during the short chat, according to Taiwanese media, which hailed the public exchange in an international venue as “a diplomatic breakthrough.”

He said he did not mind not being shown in the US’ official pictures as it was not something Taiwan could control.

Huang Kwei-Bo, an associate professor of diplomacy at the National ChengChi University, said Harris’ picture had been doctored after Lai was erased, which he said the US had to do due to the “one China” principle.

“Taiwan is just a province of China. How come it has a vice-president?” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said last Friday when asked by international media about the informal chat between the two.

Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te (center) and US Vice-President Kamala Harris (third from left) at an official event in Honduras on January 28, 2022. Photo: Facebook / Lai Ching-te

Zhao said China always opposed any form of official interaction between the US and Taiwan. He also said Lai had made “Taiwan secessionist” speeches on many occasions in the past, one of Beijing’s red lines.

Zhao urged the US to abide by the “one China” principle and the three China-US joint communiqués. He also said the US should take China’s stance and concerns seriously, and stop any form of interaction with the island’s government or send any wrong signals on “Taiwan independence.”

On Sunday, Lai told the media that during his transit through San Francisco in the US he spoke with Pelosi in a 30-minute virtual conference. He said they discussed security and economic issues, as well as China, during the online meeting.

In the virtual meeting, Pelosi voiced her concerns about the status and security of the Taiwan Strait, as well as human rights in China, according to Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s ambassador to the United States.

Meanwhile, Pelosi backed Taiwan’s membership in international organizations, particularly the World Health Organization (WHO), and stated she had personally emphasized to the WHO’s secretary-general her belief that Taiwan should be allowed to join the global health body, Taiwanese media reports said.

Before Lai’s visit to Honduras, Taiwanese media reported on January 25 that ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in the past has stated his possible presidential ambitions, might visit Taiwan for the Halifax International Security Forum in March.

In January 2021, Pompeo had planned to visit Taiwan while he was still in charge of the US State Department. However, that trip was canceled due to pressure from Beijing. Last April, Pompeo tweeted a picture of himself “enjoying some Taiwanese dried pineapple.”

Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo: AFP / Jacquelyn Martin

Pompeo has not announced any personal plan to visit the island.

An unnamed columnist wrote in the People’s Daily’s Weibo account on Sunday that the Tsai administration “could not afford to pick and choose its food due to hunger” as it wanted to promote “Taiwan independence” with Pompeo’s visit.

The state media columnist said Pompeo could only represent himself, not the US, if he visited Taiwan.

Read: US, China in an undiplomatic ‘zero-Covid’ kerfuffle

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3