US lawmaker in Taiwan visit reassures support regardless of U.S. election outcome

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By Ben Blanchard

TAIPEI (Reuters) -U.S. Representative Mike Gallagher, who chairs the House of Representatives select committee on China, said in Taipei on Thursday that no matter who wins the coming U.S. elections support for Chinese-claimed Taiwan will remain.

Gallagher, who arrived in Taiwan on Thursday with a delegation of four other lawmakers on a visit ending Saturday, has been a strong friend of Taiwan and a fierce critic of China, which has ramped up military and political pressure to force the democratic island to accept its sovereignty.

"I am very confident that support for Taiwan will continue regardless of who occupies the White House," he told a news conference in Taipei. "I see growing and extremely strong support for Taiwan."

"The people of Taiwan should be confident that America stands with them even as we see through a very intense political season domestically," he said.

Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner to be the party's presidential candidate, is likely to face President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in a rematch in November's presidential election.

In a meeting with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen earlier on Thursday, Gallagher said the U.S. delegation's trip was to show bipartisan support for the island.

"Today we come, as Democrats and Republicans, to show our bipartisan support for this partnership, which thanks to your leadership is stronger and more rock-solid than ever," Gallagher told Tsai in the presidential office in a meeting broadcast live online.

"Today, freedom is under attack from authoritarian aggression and we need to be more vigilant than ever if we want to pass on this gift of freedom we have been given to the next generation," he said, calling Tsai "a leader within the free world".

China's foreign ministry said it opposed any official exchanges between the U.S. and Taiwan authorities, and interference in Taiwan affairs "in any way and under any pretext".

"We urge the United States to recognise the extreme complexity and sensitivity of the Taiwan issue," spokesperson Mao Ning said at a regular news conference. "And handle the Taiwan-related issue in a prudent and proper manner."

China views democratically governed Taiwan as its territory. The government in Taipei rejects that position, saying only the island's people can decide their future.

Beijing routinely denounces visits by foreign lawmakers to Taiwan, believing it seeks to stoke tensions and interferes in China's affairs.

Taiwan says it can invite whomever it wants and that China has no right to speak for Taiwan's people.

In the meeting, Tsai thanked the U.S. government and parliament for continuing to help Taiwan strengthen its defences and said she hoped to see more Taiwan-U.S. exchanges this year.

In a separate meeting with Vice President Lai Ching-te, who won election as Taiwan's next president last month and will take office on May 20, Gallagher said the United States will deepen partnership with Taiwan as Lai assumes presidency and that if China attempts to invade Taiwan the effort would fail.

In December, Gallagher's committee issued an extensive list of bipartisan recommendations to reset U.S. economic ties with China, setting out legislative goals for 2024 that it said would prevent the U.S. from becoming the "economic vassal" of its chief geopolitical rival.

Gallagher said this month he will not run for re-election.

Gallagher, a member of both the House Armed Services and intelligence committees, has spent much of his time this year chairing the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, a bipartisan panel charged with investigating U.S. relations with China and developing strategies to improve the country's ability to compete with China.

He told reporters in Taipei that United States needs to ensure the delivery of weapons to Taiwan and that a delivery backlog remains a big problem.

Taiwan's defence ministry said on Thursday the U.S. government has issued a notice for a $75 million arms sales to help Taiwan upgrade its Link-16 communications systems, which the ministry said will help coordinate its combat forces.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; additional reporting by Yimou Lee in Taipei and Eduardo Baptista in Beijing; Editing by Leslie Adler, David Gregorio and Michael Perry)