US plans first cabinet visit to Taiwan in 14 years

WASHINGTON - The top US environmental official will visit Taiwan in the first trip by a cabinet-level leader from Washington to the Chinese-claimed island in 14 years, officials aid Saturday.

Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, will travel to Taiwan and Vietnam from Monday through Wednesday to discuss cooperation, her agency said in a statement.

The trip would be the first by a cabinet-level US official to Taiwan since 2000 when then US president Bill Clinton sent transportation secretary Rodney Slater.

China frequently protests any hint of international recognition for Taiwan, which it considers a province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

But tensions have abated markedly since President Ma Ying-jeou was elected in 2008 on a platform of improving relations with China through economic and cultural cooperation.

China has appeared eager to support Ma and in February held its first meeting with a Taiwanese official since their 1949 split.

China had a muted reaction when Rajiv Shah, the head of the US Agency for International Development, visited Taiwan in 2011. Shah technically does not have cabinet status.

Still, McCarthy's visit - which had long been expected - was announced with a low-key statement over the weekend.

The Environmental Protection Agency said that McCarthy would meet environmental officials and "other leading Taiwan authorities" and deliver a speech at the National Taiwan University. T

he trip comes as Ma faces a growing challenge to his Beijing-friendly policies, with student-led protesters seizing control of parliament to protest a services agreement with China that critics charge would subordinate the island.

Taiwan's government was set up by China's nationalists who fled in 1949 after defeat in the mainland's civil war. The island has since developed into a vibrant democracy.

For McCarthy, the trip will likely be a rare action that wins approval from the rival Republican Party which has strongly criticized her for spearheading regulations to fight climate change.

Taiwan is a popular cause for US lawmakers of both parties, who regularly visit the island even though Washington officially recognizes only Beijing.

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