U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar praised Taiwan’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic as an example of the island’s “transparent, democratic nature.”
Azar made the remarks Monday during a joint appearance in Taipei with President Tsai Ing-wen. His arrival Sunday at Taipei’s Songshan Airport marked the highest-level visit by an American official since Washington formally switched diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.
His trip is the latest move by President Donald Trump’s administration to build stronger ties with the self-ruled island. “It is a true honor to be here to convey a message of strong support and friendship from President Trump to Taiwan,” Azar told President Tsai. Trump signed a law in 2018, the Taiwan Travel Act, that calls for high-level visits between the U.S. and Taiwan.
Taiwan has had surprising success in limiting the coronavirus outbreak to just 477 confirmed cases and seven deaths.
China has issued strong objections to Azar’s visit to Taiwan, as it considers the island a breakaway province and has vowed to annex it by any means necessary, including a military invasion. Beijing has acted aggressively in cutting Taipei off from the international community, including objecting to its participation in the World Health Assembly.
Tsai, who has strongly advocated for Taiwan’s recognition as a sovereign nation, denounced China’s moves to bar it from the WHO in her remarks Monday. “Political considerations should never take precedence over the rights to health,” she said.
China and Taiwan split after the 1949 civil war when Chaing Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces were driven off the mainland by Mao Zedong’s Communist forces and settled on the island.
Azar’s trip has sparked another flashpoint between Beijing and Washington, with tensions already inflamed over trade, technology, China’s tightening grip on Hong Kong, and the administration’s accusations over the coronavirus outbreak, which was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. China lodged a formal complaint with the United States last week after Azar announced his trip to Taiwan, and urged Washington to end all forms of official contact with the island.