During a visit to the United States that Beijing has denounced, Taiwan’s vice president reassured supporters that the island will not cower or yield in the face of authoritarian threats and reiterated his desire to communicate with China.

William Lai, who is also expected to win Taiwan’s presidential election in January, is currently in the United States for what is formally a transit stop on his way to Paraguay for the inauguration of that country’s new president. Only 13 nations have formal relations with the island that China claims as its own, including Paraguay.

The stopovers, which include one in San Francisco on the way back, are described as usual by Taiwan and the US, but China has condemned them and referred to Lai as a separatist “troublemaker.”

According to Taiwan’s presidential office, Lai said at a supporters’ lunch on Sunday in New York that “if Taiwan is safe, the world is safe, and if the Taiwan Strait is peaceful, then the world is peaceful.”

“No matter how great the threat of authoritarianism is to Taiwan, we absolutely will not be scared nor cower, and we will uphold the values of democracy and freedom,” he stated.

The conflict between Beijing and Washington, the island’s main international patron and arms supplier, over Taiwan, which China views as its most significant diplomatic problem, is ongoing.

Lai’s prior description of himself as a “practical worker for Taiwan independence”—a red line for Beijing, which has never renounced using force to annex the island—has made China particularly unimpressed with him.

Lai repeated in New York that he was “very willing” to speak with China and work toward peace and stability on the fundamental tenets of dignity and parity. Lai has vowed to uphold peace and the status quo.

But Lai asserted that he would defend Taiwan’s independence, that only Taiwan’s citizens could decide the island’s future, and that Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China are “not subordinate to each other.”

Ingrid Larson, managing director of the American Institute in Taiwan, a non-profit organization run by the U.S. government that promotes unofficial relations with Taiwan, attended Lai’s address.

Both Taipei and Washington want the U.S. stopovers to be low-key and have urged China to refrain from acting provocatively in return.

Nevertheless, according to Taiwanese officials, China is likely to start military exercises this week close to Taiwan, using Lai’s stops there as a cover to terrify people before an election next year and instil a “fear of war” in them.

On Monday, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theatre Command, which is in charge of the region around Taiwan, posted images of troops rehearsing beach invasions on their WeChat account without identifying the area or Taiwan by name.

The soldiers “launched a fierce attack” after directing armoured vehicles “to the enemy frontline positions,” according to the report.

In April, China conducted war simulations near Taiwan after Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen had returned from California, where she had visited U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy while travelling back from Central America.