U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said she spoke with Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te on Thursday in Honduras, where the two traveled to attend the inauguration ceremony of the new leader of the Central American country, in a move that could upset China.
Harris told reporters that the conversation with Lai was "brief" and about a "common interest" in Central America. She said they did not discuss China.
According to Taiwanese media, Lai thanked Harris for the U.S. government's support for the self-ruled democratic island. The media reports also described the public exchange taking place in an international venue as "a diplomatic breakthrough."
Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary, and is particularly wary of any U.S. moves that appear to constitute official contact with the island.
Beijing has expressed firm opposition to Lai's visit to Honduras, which is one of the 14 countries that maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. China has been urging it to sever ties with Taipei.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a press conference on Jan. 20 that "any attempt to create the false impression of 'two Chinas' or 'one China, one Taiwan'" will meet the firm opposition of all Chinese people.
He also said that the United States should refrain from conducting "official engagements" with Taiwan in any form, suggesting that such a move could send the "wrong signal" to what China views as "Taiwan independence" separatist forces.
A senior U.S. government official who briefed reporters Wednesday ahead of Harris's trip to Honduras had said there were no plans for a meeting between the vice presidents.
The official also said Taiwan has played a "constructive role" in advancing development in Honduras as well as the rest of the region, and that Washington hopes that "they will continue to play that constructive role."
China and Taiwan have been governed separately since they split in 1949 as a result of a civil war. Relations have worsened since independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen became Taiwan's president in 2016.
The United States switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. But it maintains substantive, though unofficial, relations with Taiwan and assists the island in maintaining self-defense capability such as through arms sales.