TAIPEI/NEW YORK -- U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, the most senior American official to visit Taiwan in four decades, hailed Taipei's success in containing the coronavirus as "a tribute to the open, transparent, democratic nature of Taiwan's society and culture."
The comment, made at a press conference Monday, was a thinly veiled jab at mainland China's authoritarian system, which has been blamed for Beijing's hobbled initial response to the outbreak and the lack of information disclosure.
Both Washington and Taipei stressed that the trip by Azar was aimed at strengthening cooperation on fighting the virus. But there are signs that the trip was carefully timed to rankle China as tensions between Beijing and Washington continue to escalate.
"Beijing opposes all interactions between officials from the U.S. and Taiwan, so it is obviously irritated," said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The Chinese are particularly on the alert because they think the U.S. may be weakening its commitment to, or even abandoning, its 'One China' policy," she said.
After the U.S. established formal relations with China in January 1979, it steered clear of high-level meetings with Taiwanese officials out of consideration for Beijing's "one China" principle, which asserts that the island is an inalienable part of a single China.
This approach has changed under President Donald Trump. Even before taking office, Trump took an unusual congratulatory call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016 and affirmed the close economic and security ties between Washington and Taipei.
The Taiwan Travel Act, signed into law by Trump in March 2018, explicitly encourages visits by senior officials on both sides, even without formal diplomatic relations.
Despite this, no noteworthy bilateral meetings took place in the following two years. But with friction between Washington and Beijing escalating over the pandemic, the Trump administration sent a cabinet member to Taiwan as a diplomatic gambit. Azar told local media that the trip had been discussed for two or three months beforehand.
The trip "seems designed by the White House to laser a signal to Beijing of U.S. support for Taipei, while also providing an opportunity for a U.S. official to deliver a speech in Taipei" linking its democratic society to its successful COVID-19 response, said Carla Freeman, executive director of the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
This perceived encroachment on a "core interest" has infuriated Beijing, which has hinted at the possibility of retaliatory measures and even potential use of force.
At 9 a.m. Monday, just an hour before the meeting between Tsai and Azar was set to begin, Chinese fighter jets crossed the unofficial boundary between the mainland and Taiwan and flew into Taiwanese airspace, according to Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense.
And on Thursday, two days after the visit was announced, Chinese authorities announced plans for live-fire drills near an archipelago north of Taiwan starting this Tuesday.
The meeting between Azar and Tsai "broke the diplomatic bottom line of China-U.S. relations," the Communist Party-run Global Times said in an article Monday.
It quoted a Beijing-based analyst as saying that Taiwan is the biggest card of the U.S. in confronting the Chinese mainland and that the ostensible purpose of the visit -- cooperation on COVID-19 -- was nonsense.
But the U.S. does not seem inclined to back off.
During Azar's visit, the U.S. and Taiwan are expected to hold detailed discussions about having Taiwan participate as an observer at a World Health Organization meeting this fall. The U.S. had pushed for an invitation for Taipei to attend the body's annual meeting in May, but this was blocked by Chinese opposition.
Another potential flashpoint relates to the late-July death of Lee Teng-hui, the former Taiwanese president dubbed "Mr. Democracy," whom Beijing has called a pro-independence "splittist."
While the details of Azar's schedule have not been made public, a source familiar with the situation says the health secretary is slated to go to a memorial for Lee at the Taipei Guest House on Wednesday to pay respects.
Given this timing, the visit "will only strain U.S.-China relations further, leading to speculation unimaginable even a few months ago that relations between the U.S. and China could be nearing a breaking point," Freeman said.
Taipei has a difficult balance to strike. It welcomes the opportunity for a stronger relationship with the U.S. as a counter to China's maritime expansionism, but it is wary of provoking Beijing given their deep economic ties.