Paraguay's President Santiago Pena on Tuesday underscored his country's strong relationship with Taiwan by warmly referring to them as "brothers" in his inauguration speech in the capital Asuncion, Taiwanese media reported.

Taiwan Vice President Lai Ching-te was in attendance as Pena was sworn in. Paraguay is Taiwan's only remaining ally in South America and one of only 13 countries that still maintain formal diplomatic relations with the self-ruled democratic island.

Taiwan Vice President Lai Ching-te (L) and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland are pictured in Asuncion, Paraguay, on Aug. 15, 2023. (Central News Agency/Kyodo)

During the ceremony, Lai shook hands with U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and spoke briefly, according to the media report. Although the United States does not have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it is one of the island's most important arms suppliers and trade partners.

Lai also exchanged pleasantries with other dignitaries, including King Felipe VI of Spain and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the report said.

His move could anger China, which considers Taiwan as its own territory and opposes any official contact with it by other countries.

Lai transited New York en route to Asuncion and will stop at San Francisco on his way home.

"If China uses my transits in the United States as an excuse to carry out verbal and military intimidation or other threatening methods, I believe it just confirms international media reports that China is attempting to intervene in Taiwan's election with military threats," Lai told reporters in Asuncion on Tuesday

The vice president is a major candidate in the presidential election next January. Taiwan's Defense Ministry said Tuesday that it has yet to detect any relatively large-scale Chinese military exercises near the island but will not let its guard down.

Zhu Fenglian, a spokeswoman for China's State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, said in a statement Tuesday that Lai used his U.S. stopover to spread "Taiwan independence" ideas and that "such a person will push Taiwan to the brink of war."

China regards Lai, leader of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party to which Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen belongs, as a pro-independence figure.

In April, Tsai met with U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California during a stopover on a trip to Central America, prompting China to launch military drills near Taiwan.

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