U.S. announcement of health secretarys visit to Taiwan likely to anger China

Clay Curtis
August 5, 2020

Why it matters: It's the highest-level visit by a US cabinet official to Taiwan since 1979. Beijing considers the island merely one of China's provinces.

United States Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar will be arriving in Taiwan on an upcoming visit and speaking with President Tsai Ing-wen as well as medical experts on Taiwan's fight against Covid-19, said Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) on Wednesday (Aug 5). "This is the highest-level visit by a US Cabinet official since 1979!"

The United States, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, having ditched Taipei in favour of Beijing in 1979, but is its main arms supplier and strongest backer on the worldwide stage.

China is firmly opposed to official interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan, ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters.

In recent months the USA and China have simultaneously clashed over the coronavirus pandemic, trade issues, industrial espionage, territorial claims in the South China Sea, Taiwan, human rights concerns in Xinjiang and Tibet and civil liberties in Hong Kong.

Ross Darrell Feingold, a Taipei-based lawyer and political risk analyst, said the move would be welcomed by Taiwan and its supporters but cautioned against calling it a "breakthrough", pointing out that Mr Azar had previously met with Chen Shih-chung, the Taiwanese health minister.

The statement notes that in 2018, Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act, and says this visit is part of the US policy of sending high-ranking officials to reaffirm the US-Taiwan friendship.

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In Beijing, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry said Azar's visit would endanger "peace and stability" in the region.

The U.S. maintains only unofficial ties with Taiwan in deference to China.

The trip comes amid heightened tensions between the US and China over the coronavirus, trade, Hong Kong and consulates forced to close over accusations of spying.

Of the half-dozen visits by cabinet-level US officials since the 1990s, the last came in 2014, when Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy visited.

Taiwan's strong performance in handling its COVID-19 outbreak has also won it plaudits while highlighting its exclusion from the World Health Organization and other United Nations bodies.

That has changed dramatically under US President Donald Trump, who has started to embrace Taiwan more as a way to hit back at Beijing as the two superpowers increasingly clash.

HHS also remarked on Taiwan's success with the pandemic and called its role in the worldwide community "critical". China threatened unspecified retaliation in response.

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