TAIPEI, Jan 28 — The vice presidents of Taiwan and the United States had a brief exchange at the inauguration of Honduras’s new leader, the island’s state media reported today, a first encounter that will likely stoke US-China tensions.

China considers democratic, self-ruled Taiwan a part of its territory, to be retaken by force if necessary, and says its status is one of the most sensitive issues in Beijing’s dealings with Washington.

US President Joe Biden has largely maintained his predecessor Donald Trump’s tough approach to Beijing, with both administrations seeing a rising China as the top challenge of the 21st century.

William Lai and Kamala Harris shared “a simple greeting” in which both “spoke briefly” during yesterday’s ceremony to swear in Honduran president Xiomara Castro, Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA) said.

Lai said he thanked the US on behalf of Taiwan for “its rock-solid support”, CNA reported.

Their conversation was the first public interaction between US and Taiwanese vice presidents since Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979, according to Fan Shih-ping, a political analyst at Taiwan’s National Normal University.

The exchange was likely kept as a “natural interaction in a tacit understanding between Taipei and Washington to avoid rattling China too much,” he told AFP.

“It also shows US’s support for Taiwan and its diplomatic relations with Honduras as China becomes increasingly active to go after Taiwan’s diplomatic allies.”

The US is careful not to officially recognise Taiwan but the island enjoys broad, bipartisan support in Congress.

Beijing said it opposes “any form of official interaction between the US and Taiwan”.

“Taiwan is just a province of China, so there is no so-called vice president for a province,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters.

The US should “take seriously China’s position and concern, stop any form of official contact with Taiwan, and not send any wrong signal to the Taiwan independence forces”, he said.

Taiwan’s presidential office has not commented on the interaction, only saying Lai “exchanged greetings with the representatives from various countries and interacted with them naturally”.

Lai’s visit to Honduras comes as China intensifies its campaign to isolate Taiwan on the world stage.

Last month, Nicaragua switched its allegiance to Beijing, leaving neighbouring Honduras as one of only 14 countries that still diplomatically recognise Taiwan rather than China.

But concerns over its relations with Taiwan have mounted following pro-Beijing remarks by Castro, the Latin American country’s first female leader, while campaigning.

When meeting Lai the day before her inauguration, Castro “expressed hope for a firm friendship going forward”, Taiwan’s presidential office said in a statement. — AFP