Sat Jan 7, 2017 5:30AM
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (C) departs for her visit to allied nations in Central America at Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan, January 7, 2017. (Photo by Reuters)
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (C) departs for her visit to allied nations in Central America at Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan, January 7, 2017. (Photo by Reuters)

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen has begun her nine-day trip to four Central American countries with planned stopovers in the US, a development closely watched by Beijing amid warming Taipei-Washington ties.

Before boarding the plane on Saturday, Tsai said her visit to Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, was aimed at reinforcing diplomatic and trade relations.

"We will discuss with the allied nations how to promote cooperation programs …. Our focus will be to strengthen economic and trade relations …, cooperate hand in hand and benefit from each other, so that the results of diplomatic relations can become a tangible gain of the countries," she said.

Tsai’s transit stops in Houston and San Francisco has prompted Beijing to ask the US to bar the Taiwanese leader from flying through its airspace.

Asked whether she would be meeting officials from US President-elect Donald Trump's team, Tsai had earlier said, "A transit is a transit."

Trump also appeared to have ruled out meeting Tsai, saying it is "a little bit inappropriate" to meet anybody until he takes the oath of office.

"What China cares most about is whether Tsai and Trump will meet," said political analyst Liao Da-chi.

Tsai is expected to attend Nicaragua’s presidential inauguration ceremony on Tuesday and sit down with the heads of states of the other three Central American states.

China was angered last December by a telephone conversation between Trump and Tsai.

The 10-minute phone call cast doubt on the new US government's commitment to the "One China" policy that regards Taiwan as part of China.

This combination photo shows US president-elect Donald Trump (L) and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. (Photo by AFP)

The US switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, and has since maintained unofficial ties with the self-ruled island.

China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province that will eventually be part of the mainland. China has warned Tsai against seeking independence while Beijing 2005 Anti-Secession Law authorizes the use of force against Taiwan if it formally secedes.

China and Taiwan are physically separated by the Taiwan Strait in the Western Pacific Ocean. They split politically following the 1927-1950 Chinese Civil War and there have been no formal cross-strait diplomatic relations ever since.