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Taiwan's vice president is stopping by the U.S. this week, under China's watchful eye

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Taiwan's vice president stops in New York today on his way to Paraguay. He hopes to be Taiwan's next president. And what should be a low-key stopover is not because of China. China's already announced military drills in waters near Taiwan to signal displeasure. Here's NPR's Emily Feng.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Lai Ching-te, or William Lai as he goes by an English, is doing what almost all Taiwanese presidential hopefuls do ahead of an election - making a stop in the U.S.

WEN-TI SUNG: It's almost a rite of passage in a way.

FENG: This is Wen-Ti Sung, a professor of political science at Australia National University.

SUNG: So that's how Taiwan's presidential candidates go about proving their foreign policy credentials. They are proving that they are respected by the world's superpower; they can work with these people; they are respected by these people.

FENG: An important quality for Taiwanese voters, given that the U.S. is Taiwan's most important defense partner and a key trading partner as well. But China wants the world to treat Taiwan as its province, not as a full-blown country. And official Taiwanese trips abroad like this one anger Beijing - Wen-Ti Sung says this one in particular, with Taiwan's January elections so close.

SUNG: So it's really when Lai Ching-te is not only vice president, but also the front-runner in Taiwan's upcoming 2024 presidential race that those two things together really make Beijing uneasy about it.

FENG: The cost of a misstep on this trip is high. So Taiwan is handling Lai's travel carefully. Diplomats say he's not making any public appearances while in the U.S., preferring instead to privately meet with American officials. And U.S officials pointedly refer to Lai's trip as a transit, meaning a stop for logistical, rather than political, purposes. But Lin Ying Yu, an international relations professor at Taiwan's Tamkang University, says the trip is political.

LIN YING YU: (Through interpreter) For Lai, this trip is especially to break out of some of the suspicions the U.S. may have about him and prove he can engage with the U.S.

FENG: That's because many of Lai's supporters are in favor of declaring Taiwan's formal independence as a country, a minority position in Taiwan that neither the U.S. nor China supports. He'll need to convince the U.S. that's not something he'll pursue if he hopes to have a good relationship with Washington and do that without alienating his voters.

Emily Feng, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.