US cabinet member to meet Taiwan’s leader

A US cabinet member was due to meet Taiwan’s leader Monday during the highest level visit from the United States since it switched diplomatic recognition from the island to China in 1979, a trip that Beijing has condemned.  

Health Secretary Alex Azar arrived in Taipei on Sunday for a three-day visit to promote shared democratic values as well as the island’s success in taming the coronavirus.

Azar’s visit comes as relations between the United States and China are in tumult, with the two sides clashing over a wide range of trade, military and security isses, as well as the pandemic.

China, which insists Taiwan is its own territory and vows to one day reclaim it, has described Azar’s visit as a threat to “peace and stability”.

Azar was due to meet on Monday morning with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who advocates the island being recognised as a sovereign nation and is loathed by China’s leaders.

“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 health and human services department official told reporters ahead of the visit.

As well as meeting Tsai, Azar will hold talks with his counterpart Chen Shih-chung and Foreign Minister Joseph Wu.

Taiwan has become a poster child for defeating the coronavirus thanks to a well-honed track and tracing programme as well as firm border controls. 

Despite its proximity and economic links to China it has recorded fewer than 500 infections and seven deaths.

In contrast the US has recorded the most deaths in the world with more than 160,000 fatalities.

– Testing China –

Washington remains the leading arms supplier to Taiwan but has historically been cautious in holding official contacts with it.

Under Trump, relations with Taiwan have warmed dramatically and he has approved a number of major military sales, including F-16 fighter jets.

Douglas Paal, a former head of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s de facto embassy, said the Trump administration was still paying heed to China’s red line — that no US official handling national security visit Taiwan. 

Throughout the 1990s the United States sent trade officials to Taiwan with regularity. 

The difference this time, he said, is the context, with Azar travelling at a time when relations between Washington and Beijing have hit a new low.

“Sending him to Taiwan shows respect for the old framework while putting a finger in China’s eye at the same time,” Paal said.

“The fact that they didn’t choose to send a national security advisor 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.”

The last cabinet minister to visit Taiwan was in 2014 when the then head of the Environmental Protection Agency led a delegation.

by Amber Wang with Shaun Tandon in Washington