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Taiwan president taking high-risk foreign trip

Aug. 12, 2008, 6:52 a.m. (ET)

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) Taiwan's new president set off Tuesday on his first foreign trip, amid indications that one of his hosts could be ready to switch diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing.

Ma Ying-jeou is traveling to Paraguay for the Aug. 15 inauguration of President-elect Fernando Lugo and then on to the Dominican Republic for talks with President Leonel Fernandez.

In April, Lugo said he would end Asuncion's 51-year relationship with Taipei and recognize Beijing. Since then, his foreign-minister-designate has indicated that she wants to "review" Paraguay's ties to Taiwan.

Any change in Paraguay's relations would deal a bitter blow to Ma's attempts to improve ties with China, the cornerstone of his three-month-old presidency. Last month, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Francisco Ou said a Paraguay switch would indicate China was unwilling to consider the diplomatic truce Ma sees as an essential part of his program.

Speaking to reporters before setting off from Taipei airport, Ma drew a connection between his trip, and Taiwan's demands for international space.

"A substantial part of (Taiwan's) diplomacy is inseparable from cross-strait relations," he said. "I have started to promote flexible diplomacy, including a proposal for diplomatic reconciliation and truce between the two sides."

Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949. Since then, they have been engaged in a furious battle to win diplomatic allies around the world, often using liberal aid programs to cement ties.

Taiwan is recognized by only 23 countries, mostly small and impoverished nations in Africa and the Pacific. By contrast, China has more than 170 diplomatic allies, including the United States, Japan, and all of Asia and Europe, except for the Vatican.

On Tuesday, a Taiwanese foreign ministry spokesman, Henry Chen, said Taiwan is confident about maintaining ties with Paraguay, at least for now.

"President Ma's visit will help bolster bilateral relations, and we believe there will be no change in the ties in the short term," he said.