Taiwan and U.S. to hold highest-level meeting since 1979 as China tensions grow

Taiwan and U.S. to hold highest-level meeting since 1979 as China tensions grow

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar will travel this month to Taiwan, the two governments announced Wednesday Asia time, setting the stage for a politically charged trip that will showcase closer ties and inject a volatile new element into tense relations with China.

U.S. and Taiwanese officials noted that the trip marks the highest-level visit to Taiwan by a cabinet secretary since 1979 — the year the United States established formal diplomatic relations with the Communist government in Beijing and ceased to recognize the government in Taipei as China.
In a pointed statement, the Department of Health and Human Services said the rare visit was part of “America’s policy of sending high-level U.S. officials to Taiwan to reaffirm the U.S.-Taiwan friendship” and celebrate shared democratic values “in contrast to authoritarian systems.”
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“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,” Azar said.
Taiwanese officials in Washington said Azar would meet with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and other senior officials during the visit. Taiwan’s widely praised response to the coronavirus pandemic — despite its exclusion from the World Health Organization — is expected to feature in discussions, as the United States grapples with a devastating toll from the crisis.
China’s Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan in 1949 after their defeat by Communists in a civil war. In the ensuing decades, both parties claimed rightful rule over China and have at times acknowledged the existence of “one China” even as Taiwan transformed into a de facto independent democracy without formally declaring independence.
Today, China’s Communist Party maintains the “reunification” of China — by military force, if necessary — as one of its highest and most sensitive overarching priorities. The leadership responds angrily to diplomatic gestures, including visits by foreign dignitaries, that appear to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.
On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin urged the United States to abide by the “one China” principle “to prevent affecting peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
“China is firmly opposed to official interactions with Taiwan. China has lodged representations with the U.S.,” he said at a regular briefing. “Taiwan is the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations.”
Beijing has sought to isolate Taiwan internationally by peeling away its diplomatic partners, who now number just 15.
Of the half-dozen visits by cabinet-level U.S. officials since the 1990s, the last came in 2014, when Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy visited.
Trump broke diplomatic norms after his election victory in 2016 when he took a congratulatory call from President Tsai — the first time a U.S. leader had spoken directly to his Taiwanese counterpart since Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing.
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Since then, the Trump administration reinforced ties with Taiwan, including with significant weapons sales, while it pursued a confrontational strategy against Beijing that has accelerated sharply in recent months.
China has responded by issuing hands-off warnings to the U.S. military, dispatching naval vessels through the Taiwan Strait and conducting large-scale military drills that simulate the island’s capture. The tensions have sparked warnings from officials that the risk of military clash over Taiwan is rising precariously.
While a visit by Azar will not be considered as provocative in Beijing as a trip by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for instance, it revolves around a charged, high-profile issue — the coronavirus pandemic — for which the Trump administration has heaped blame on China.
Taiwan has reported fewer than 500 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic, while China has reported roughly 84,000 cases and the United States nearly 5 million, the most in the world.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that it looked forward to “strengthening Taiwan-U.S. cooperation in areas of medical research, supply chain security, and global health.”
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