TAIPEI • A senior member of US President Donald Trump’s administration landed in Taiwan yesterday for Washington’s highest-level visit since it switched diplomatic recognition to China in 1979, a move Beijing has condemned.
During the three-day trip, US Health Secretary Alex Azar will meet President Tsai Ing-wen, an advocate for the island being recognised as a sovereign nation, who is loathed by China’s leaders.
Mr Azar is the most senior Cabinet member to visit Taiwan in decades and his trip comes as relations between the world’s two biggest economic powers plunge to historic lows.
Washington has billed the trip as an opportunity to learn from Taiwan’s fight against the coronavirus and to celebrate its progressive values. “This trip is a recognition of Taiwan’s success in combating Covid-19 and a testament to the shared beliefs that open and democratic societies are best equipped to combating disease threats like Covid-19,” a Department of Health and Human Services official said.
Beijing last week described Mr Azar’s visit to Taiwan as a threat to “peace and stability” while China’s defence minister warned against Washington making any “dangerous moves”.
Mr Azar will also hold talks with his Taiwanese counterpart Chen Shih-chung and Foreign Minister Joseph Wu.
Taiwan has become a poster child in the fight against Covid-19, thanks to the island’s strong contact tracing and firm border controls.
Despite its proximity and economic links to China, it has recorded fewer than 500 infections and seven deaths.
The deteriorating ties between US and China come as Mr Trump seeks re-election in November.
As public disapproval grows over his handling of the epidemic, he has pivoted from his previous focus on striking a trade deal with China to blaming the country for the global health crisis.
Under Mr Trump, Washington’s ties with Taipei have warmed dramatically and he has approved several major military sales, including F-16 fighter jets.
Dr Douglas Paal, former head of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s defacto embassy, said the Trump administration was still paying heed to China’s red line – that no US official handling national security visit Taiwan.
The difference this time, he said, is the context – with Mr Azar travelling at a time when Sino-US ties have hit a new bottom.
“Sending him to Taiwan shows respect for the old framework while putting a finger in China’s eye at the same time,” Dr Paal said. “The fact that they didn’t choose to send a national security adviser or someone else suggests they are trying to come as close as possible to China’s red line but don’t want to cross it.”