U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar arrived in Taiwan Sunday, leading a U.S. delegation for a three-day visit during which he will meet President Tsai Ing-wen.
This is the highest-level visit by an American official since the break in diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei in 1979.
The visit comes as relations between the United States and China have plunged to historic lows.
China objects to official contact between the U.S. and Taiwan, which it claims as its own territory, while the Taiwanese president has strongly advocated Taiwan’s recognition as a sovereign nation.
Beijing has strongly and repeatedly objected to recognition of self-ruled Taiwan and has vowed to seize the island by force if necessary.
Last week, China described Azar’s visit as a threat to “peace and stability,” while its defense minister warned against “dangerous moves” by Washington.
Washington has said the Taiwan trip is an opportunity to learn from the island’s success story in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and to acknowledge 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 Health and Human Services official said to reporters before the trip.
During his visit, Azar praised Taiwan’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic as an example of the island’s “transparent, democratic nature.”
Taiwan has recorded fewer than 500 COVID-19 cases and only seven deaths.
President Tsai Ing-wen, who has strongly advocated for Taiwan’s recognition as a sovereign nation, denounced China’s moves to bar it from the WHO in her remarks Monday. “Political considerations should never take precedence over the rights to health,” she said.