SINGAPORE - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Saturday that Washington will continue to uphold the "Taiwan Relations Act" and "One China Policy" after his much-watched meeting with Morris Chang, Taiwan's representative to a regional economic forum in Papua New Guinea.
Pence met with Chang on the sidelines of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit on Saturday in Port Moresby, the first pull-aside bilateral meeting between a top U.S. leader and Taiwan's envoy during the high-level regional economic gatherings in years.
Pence is not planning to have a separate bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping who is also attending APEC, according to American officials.
Assertive US policy
That is seen as a reflection of an assertive U.S. policy toward China. China claims democratically self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory. Analysts said strengthening U.S.-Taiwan ties is not an irritant in the U.S.-China relationship.
"The United States will continue to uphold the Taiwan Relations Act and the One China policy. Taiwan is a member of APEC in good standing," Pence told traveling press Saturday.
The nuance between Washington's "One China Policy" and China's "One China Principle" is that the U.S. stance leaves open the possibility that a future resolution could be determined peacefully by both China and Taiwan.
"The conversation with them was about economics," Pence said. "They made a case for being considered for a free trade agreement, which I assured them that we will carry back that interest."
In a tweet, Taiwan's government said the U.S.-Taiwan talks "will strengthen regional connections in promoting inclusive growth & shaping the digital future."
"Given that Taiwan is a full member of APEC it should not be unusual to have head of delegation meetings between the U.S. and Taiwan, but given the weak policy of previous U.S. administrations, this encounter is seen as a breakthrough," said Steve Yates, who was a senior adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
"Meeting with the Taiwan delegation head is not an anti-China or hawkish move," Yates told VOA in an email. "It is a positive affirmation of Taiwan's interests and values being consistent with the Indo-Pacific strategy of the U.S. and its allies."
President Trump had met with Chang last year, according to Pence. Chang is the founder of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which will continue to be the sole supplier of Apple's A-series chips in 2019.
Other analysts said a close U.S.-Taiwan tie should not be viewed as a source of irritation in the U.S.-China relationship.
In a recent interview, the director of the Hudson Institute's Center on Chinese Strategy, Michael Pillsbury, told VOA that Pence, by describing troubles in U.S.-China relations, did not "engage in self-censorship" and was providing "constructive criticism."
"Taiwan is important," Pillsbury said, "I think it's time for a new history to review, you know, all aspects of relations between China and the U.S., including Taiwan [and] our 'One China' policy."
Taiwan tech prowess
The selection of Chang to represent Taiwan is seen as showcasing its tech prowess instead of its sticky position in geopolitics.
Taiwan has been a manufacturing hub since the 1980s for hardware for PCs and, more recently, smartphones. Taiwanese firms often make those devices on contract for Apple and other major brands. Much of that hardware carries chips made by TSMC.
"From intellectual property rights protection to cybersecurity, to trade policy in general, Morris Chang is a uniquely knowledgeable counterpart for Vice President Pence to engage on these topics," Yates said.
Informal U.S.-Taiwan ties have improved under U.S. President Donald Trump.
In this photo released by Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Taiwan's special APEC envoy Morris Chang, left, meets with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on the Pacific Explorer cruise ship on the sidelines of the APEC Summit, Nov. 17, 2018, in Port Mores
The Pence-Chang meeting came months after Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act in March. The legislation is seen as a move to facilitate direct official U.S. contacts with the self-ruled island, which were cut in 1979 when Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
At a major foreign policy speech at the Washington-based Hudson Institute in October, Pence praised Taiwan's democracy, saying "America will always believe that Taiwan's embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people."
Chang's nonpolitical background is unlikely to ruffle China, according to experts.
China has a "sort of more toned-down" approach to Taiwanese representation at APEC, said Christopher Johnson, who is a senior adviser of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS.)
"APEC is a strictly economic forum and so Beijing always makes that point," said Matthew Goodman, senior adviser for Asian economics program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
In the past, delegates from China and Taiwan sometimes met briefly during APEC, though they did not usually use this economic forum to discuss their own issues.
The 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC,) founded in 1989, is an economic bloc that facilitates trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific region.
The relations between the United States and Taiwan are governed by the Taiwan Relations Act that was passed by Congress in April 1979.
Despite being a full member of APEC, Taiwan's presidents are traditionally prohibited from attending the leaders' summit because of China's opposition and therefore Taiwan's presidents send their personal envoys to the regional economic gatherings.
This is the second time Chang has represented Taiwan at APEC. He represented Taiwan's then-President Chen Shui-bian in 2006.
VOA White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report from Papua New Guinea.