Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the…
FILE - Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing in Washington, July 8, 2020.

TAIPEI - U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar will visit Taiwan “in the coming days,” a move that has angered China, which considers the self-ruled island a part of the Chinese mainland. 

In a statement released late Tuesday, the U.S. agency said Azar’s “historic visit will strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan partnership and enhance U.S.-Taiwan cooperation to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic.”  Azar praised Taiwan’s “remarkable success battling COVID-19 as a free and transparent democratic society.” 

Azar will hold talks with Taiwan health experts about the island’s COVID-19 response and its role as a reliable global supplier of medical equipment and critical technology.  He held a rare telephone conference back in April with his Taiwan counterpart, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung. 

Taiwan's representative office in Washington told VOA in an emailed message that it "looks forward to robust engagements on ways democracies can jointly respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, while further strengthening Taiwan-U.S. cooperation in areas of medical research, supply chain security, and global health."

Taiwan’s foreign ministry said Azar will also meet with President Tsai Ing-wen during his visit.   

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters in Beijing Wednesday that Taiwan was “the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations” and urged Washington to end all forms of official contact with the island to avoid damaging bilateral relations between the world’s two largest economies.  Weng said the ministry has filed a strong protest with officials in Washington.  

China and Taiwan split after the 1949 civil war after Chaing Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces were driven off the mainland by Mao Zedong’s Communist forces and settled on the island.   

But Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has vowed to annex it by any means necessary, including a military invasion. 

Secretary Azar will become the highest-ranking U.S. cabinet member to visit the self-ruled island since 1979, when Washington formally switched diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing.  He will also be the first cabinet-level official to visit Taiwan since then-Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy visited in 2014. 

His planned visit is the latest move by President Donald Trump’s administration to build stronger ties with Taiwan, and is sure to further inflame tensions 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.  

Taiwan has had surprising success in limiting the coronavirus outbreak to just 476 confirmed cases and seven deaths. But Taiwan is neither a member of the World Health Organization nor the United Nations because of opposition from Beijing.

VOA's Natalie Liu contributed to this story.