The United States says Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar will travel to Taiwan in the coming days, marking the highest-level visit to the self-ruled island in decades, amid escalatory posturing toward China.
The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto US embassy in Taipei, made the announcement on Wednesday.
“This marks… the first Cabinet member to visit in six years, and the highest level visit by a US Cabinet official since 1979,” it said.
The last trip by an American cabinet-level official to Taiwan was in 2014, when the then-head of the Environmental Protection Agency visited.
The AIT said Azar would be accompanied on the “historic” trip by Mitchell Wolfe, the chief medical officer of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other members of the administration.
“Taiwan has been a model of transparency and cooperation in global health during the COVID-19 pandemic and long before it,” Azar said in a statement. “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.”
Taiwan has won praise for its response to the coronavirus pandemic, having kept its case numbers low due to effective and early prevention steps.
In a separate statement on Wednesday, Taiwan’s foreign ministry confirmed the trip, adding that Azar would meet with president Tsai Ing-wen. The ministry further described Azar’s upcoming trip as “ample evidence of the solid foundation of mutual trust” between Washington and Taipei.
China has sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan, and under the “One China” policy, almost all world countries recognize that sovereignty.
The US, too, recognizes Chinese sovereignty over the island but has long courted Taipei in an attempt to counter Beijing.
Washington, which has no formal diplomatic relations with Taipei by law, is the island’s largest weapons supplier and an avid backer of Taiwan’s secessionist president Tsai, causing increasing tensions with Beijing over trade and a host of other issues.
China has pursued reunification with Taiwan ever since the island broke away from the mainland during a civil war in 1949.
US cabinet official’s visit to Taiwan to endanger peace: China
Later on Wednesday, China expressed strong opposition to Azar’s planned visit to Taiwan, saying the trip would endanger “peace and stability” in the region.
“China firmly opposes official exchanges between the US and Taiwan,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular briefing in Beijing.
“We urge the US to abide by the one-China principle… stop all forms of official exchanges with Taiwan… and refrain from sending any wrong signals to the Taiwan independence forces,” he added.
China and the US are also at odds over a growing number of issues, including the origin of the new coronavirus, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea, besides Taiwan.