US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has shrugged off China’s objections to the planned visit by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to Taiwan, saying it was not inconsistent with previous policy.
“Cabinet members have travelled to Taiwan previously,” Mr Pompeo said on Wednesday.
Mr Azar is “going there with a deep and important purpose. We’re still in a global pandemic”, he said, adding: “Taiwan has had some significant success in how they have handled this. We have wanted them to be part of the conversations at the World Health Assembly… China has prevented that from happening.
“And so he’ll go there and talk to them about public health issues as they relate to how we all move forward with respect to how we handle Covid and the opportunity for therapeutics and a vaccine… We welcome the expertise that Taiwan brings to that.”
Mr Pompeo’s remarks, in answer to a question at a media briefing, came hours after a sharp reaction from China to the planned visit.
Mr Azar will be the first US Cabinet official to visit Taiwan since a 2014 trip by the then administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Gina McCarthy – the highest-ranking Cabinet member to make a visit since Taiwan and the US cut formal ties in 1979.
Mr Azar will meet medical experts and front-line health workers handling Covid-19 cases, and also meet President Tsai Ing-wen, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, and Health and Welfare Minister Chen Shih-chung.
The US officially follows the “One China” policy – not recognising Taiwan as an independent entity, but maintaining trade and business ties and supplying the island with weapons.
China considers Taiwan a renegade province which will one day reunify with the mainland.
On Wednesday, in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said: “China firmly opposes official exchanges between the United States and Taiwan.”
He called for the US to keep to the “One China” principle and not send “wrong signals” to pro-independence advocates in Taiwan.
Separately, Mr Azar, in a statement, said: “Taiwan has been a model of transparency and cooperation in global health during the Covid-19 pandemic and long before it.”
He’s going there with a deep and important purpose. We’re still in a global pandemic. Taiwan has had some significant success in how they have handled this.
U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO, on Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s trip to Taiwan.
Taiwan has been a model of transparency and cooperation in global health during the Covid-19 pandemic and long before it. I look forward to conveying President (Donald) 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.
MR AZAR, in a statement on his visit.
He added: “I look forward to conveying President (Donald) 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.”
While Mr Azar’s visit is focused on health and the pandemic, it is difficult to separate from the wider context of the Trump administration’s painting of the Chinese Communist Party as a malignant actor and threat to democracies.
Just days ago, the Trump administration said it wanted to ban or force the sale of TikTok, the popular short video-sharing platform owned by the Chinese firm ByteDance, in what Beijing has called a “smash and grab”.
“Broadly… in economic areas, enhanced ties is not really a problem, and a US-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement may be a good idea,” Dr Robert Manning, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Centre for Strategy and Security, told The Straits Times.
“But the larger context of China obliterating the ‘one country, two systems’ myth in Hong Kong, always derided in Taiwan; duelling military exercises in the South China Sea and off Taiwan; and (Chinese President Xi Jinping’s) hyper-nationalist assertiveness across the board, not least rumblings in China of action on Taiwan, make the current situation particularly dicey.
“And of course, having the Secretary of State give a major speech… all but calling for regime change, doesn’t help either,” Dr Manning added, referring to a July 23 speech by Mr Pompeo in which he called for the “free world” to stand up to communist China.
Ms Yun Sun, senior fellow and director of the China Programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington, told The Straits Times: “A visit by a Cabinet member does not constitute abandonment of US strategic ambiguity, and does not constitute the recognition of Taiwan as an independent country.
“I don’t think China should react belligerently… although I know it will, perhaps by more military moves on the Taiwan Strait and around Taiwan island.”
She added: “But I don’t think overt military takeover or a military conflict over Taiwan is in the Chinese cards.
“After all, they are waiting for the Nov 3 election to change the US president and its China policy. Getting into a conflict now will not serve that purpose.”