US Health Secretary to visit Taiwan

A local Taiwanese biomedical company has developed a test kit for the coronavirus that can provide results in a mere 10 minutes. Photo: CNA. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

TAIPEI, Aug 5, 2020, NYT. The United States’ top health official, Alex M. Azar II, will lead a delegation on a trip to Taiwan, a rare high-level visit to the island by an American official that is likely to further fray ties between Beijing and Washington, The New York Times reported.

Mr. Azar, the secretary of health and human services, will be the highest-ranking American official to visit since 1979, the year the U.S. severed its formal ties with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with the Chinese government in Beijing.

No date was given for Mr. Azar’s trip to Taiwan, a self-ruled island that the Chinese government claims as its territory. But in a statement on Tuesday, the health department billed it as an opportunity to strengthen economic and public health cooperation with Taiwan and to highlight its success in battling the coronavirus pandemic.

“Taiwan has been a model of transparency and cooperation in global health during the Covid-19 pandemic and long before it,” Mr. Azar said in the department’s statement. “I look forward to conveying President Trump’s support for Taiwan’s global health leadership and underscoring our shared belief that free and democratic societies are the best model for protecting and promoting health.”

As of Tuesday, the island of 23 million just off the coast of southeastern China had reported just 476 coronavirus cases and seven deaths. Officials in Taiwan have tried to turn that success into a geopolitical victory. Its government has sent millions of masks, emblazoned with the words “made in Taiwan,” to the United States, Italy and other countries devastated by the coronavirus.

It has also promoted itself as a model of democracy, even as China tries to use the crisis to promote the strength of its authoritarian system.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said China was “firmly opposed to official interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan,” without mentioning Mr. Azar by name. The spokesman, Wang Wenbin, urged the United States to adhere to the “one China principle,” which holds that mainland China and Taiwan are part of a single country, so as not to “gravely damage Sino-U.S. relations and the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait.”

“China has lodged solemn representations with the U.S.,” Mr. Wang said at a regular briefing, adding that Taiwan was “the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations.”

Beijing has long sought to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and objected to U.S. support for the island, which remains an important, though unofficial, American ally in the Pacific region. Though the United States has been cautious about making official contact with Taiwan, it continues to be the island’s leading arms supplier.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that Mr. Azar would meet with senior Taiwanese leaders, including President Tsai Ing-wen. Discussions are expected to touch on Taiwan’s role as a supplier of medical equipment and critical technology, among other issues, the U.S. health department said.

The island is home to one of the world’s leading computer chip makers, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, and is a major manufacturer of medical masks and other hospital equipment.

Mr. Azar will also deliver a speech in which he will highlight “Taiwan’s constructive role in the international community, especially in global public health,” the statement said.

The trip threatens to further fuel tensions between the United States and China, with diplomatic ties reaching their lowest point since the two countries normalized relations more than four decades ago.

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