Heath and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar will lead a U.S. delegation to Taiwan in the coming days, becoming the first Cabinet member to visit in six years and the highest-level U.S. official to visit since 1979.
The trip and a planned meeting with Taiwan’s president will likely create new friction between the U.S. and China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory to be annexed by force if necessary.
Azar said he wants to strengthen global health and economic cooperation between the two nations and praised Taiwan’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
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“We have had a really important, long-standing partnership with Taiwan, especially in the field of public health,” Azar told Fox News’ “America’s Newsroom” Wednesday. “Taiwan has been a model of transparency, cooperation and collaboration in the international community. And their response to COVID has been incredible. And, frankly, it stacks up pretty well in terms of their transparency, compared to certain other entities.”
Azar said he’ll be meeting with Taiwan’s president and health minister “to continue this health collaboration to benefit the people of Taiwan, the people of America, and the people of the world.”
This will be the first time an American HHS secretary visits Taiwan. The last time a Cabinet member visited was six years ago, when then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy traveled to Taiwan.
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Taiwan is a key irritant in the troubled relationship between the United States and China, which are also at odds over trade, technology, territorial claims in the South China Sea and China’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China has lodged “solemn complaints” over the visit with U.S. officials in both Beijing and Washington.
“The Taiwan issue is the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations,” Wang said at a daily briefing. He said Washington needs to stop all forms of official contact with Taiwan and make good on its commitment to Beijing to “avoid serious damage to China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
In 2018, President Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act which allows high-level officials to travel to Taiwan and their counterparts to visit America. Azar is set to deliver a major speech to public health graduate students during the trip.
The U.S. maintains only unofficial ties with Taiwan in deference to Beijing, but is the island’s most important ally and provider of defense equipment.
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“In contrast to authoritarian systems, U.S. and Taiwan societies and economies are uniquely equipped to drive global progress in areas such as medicine and science to help the world tackle emerging threats,” HHS said in a statement announcing the visit. “The COVID-19 pandemic is the most recent example of joint U.S.-Taiwan efforts to confront global challenges for the good of the world.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.