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International relations

US health chief lands in Taiwan on 'highest level' trip since 1979

Alex Azar's visit follows dramatic week in tech Cold War with China

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar arrives at Taipei Songshan Airport, Taiwan Aug. 9.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- U.S. President Donald Trump's health secretary arrived in Taiwan on Sunday ahead of meetings with President Tsai Ing-wen and other officials in the following days, in a conspicuous display of warming relations just as Washington-Beijing ties turn icier than ever.

The American Institute in Taiwan -- the de facto embassy on the self-ruled island that China views as part of its territory -- described Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar's trip as the first by a cabinet member in six years "and the highest level visit by a U.S. cabinet official since 1979."

The move comes only days after the U.S.-China tech Cold War entered a new phase on Friday, when Trump signed an executive order demanding that U.S. companies stop dealing with two major Chinese players within 45 days: ByteDance, the owner of video-sharing app TikTok, and WeChat, the popular messaging service run by Tencent Holdings.

Taiwan has been one of the success stories of the coronavirus pandemic, with fewer than 500 infections recorded, and the visit has been billed as an effort to strengthen health cooperation across the Pacific. Azar is joined by Brian Harrison, health and human services chief of staff.

The delegation, with AIT Chairman James Moriarty, is to meet Tsai on Monday along with her Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, according to both the AIT and Taiwan's Foreign Ministry.

The U.S. visitors will not need to go through quarantine as generally requested for foreigners and nationals arriving in Taiwan. They all have tested negative for COVID-19 and took a private plane, Chen noted. Chen said the visitors would make no personal excursions during their stay and would wear masks most of the time, except when Azar speaks in public at a safe distance from the audience.

On Monday afternoon, Azar and Chen will attend a signing ceremony for a memorandum of understanding between the AIT and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States, the AIT said. Also on Azar's agenda is a visit to Taiwan's Central Epidemic Command Center for COVID-19 and a speech to public health graduates -- alumni of a U.S. CDC training program.

The mere announcement of Azar's trip was enough to cause a stir in Beijing.

"China firmly opposes any official interaction between the U.S. and Taiwan," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a news conference after the plans were revealed earlier this week. "Any attempt to ignore, deny or challenge the One China principle is doomed to fail," he said, referring to China's stance that the mainland, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan all constitute one country.

"China will take firm countermeasures in response to the U.S. wrong move," Wang said.

Relations between Beijing and Taipei have soured significantly since Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party were elected in 2016, followed by a landslide reelection early this year. On the other hand, ties between Taipei and Washington have steadily improved. Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act in 2018 to increase high-level official visits between the two, along with the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act in 2020 to strengthen the island's diplomatic relations with neighbors in the Indo-Pacific region.

The mood has certainly shifted since 1979, when the U.S. cut formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of recognizing the Communist-run People's Republic of China.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen leaves a note after paying her respects to late former President Lee Teng-hui -- the "father of Taiwanese democracy" -- on Aug. 1.   © Reuters

"Secretary Azar's visit speaks to the burgeoning ties between Washington and Taipei," said Sean King, a scholar at the University of Notre Dame Liu Institute for Asia & Asian Affairs.

"U.S.-Taiwan relations should not be captive to U.S.-PRC trade, as Taiwan's important enough on its own," King added. "Credit to President Trump for not letting Beijing's ire stop him from sending Azar."

Ross Darrell Feingold, a veteran lawyer and political risk analyst, suggested however that the visit might be part of a bigger game.

Feingold told the Nikkei Asian Review that Azar's trip could be viewed in the context of upcoming U.S.-China trade talks, scheduled for next Saturday. "Even if the negotiation is meant to be about trade, other issues such as Taiwan, South China Sea, espionage accusations against Chinese nationals in the U.S., and others remain part of the overall agenda and cannot be separated entirely from trade," he said.

"The risk for Taiwan is that the visit becomes one more, and minor, part of the trilateral relationship, rather than an important event in its bilateral relationship with the United States."

Either way, the timing of the visit appears highly symbolic.

In sharp contrast with the U.S. view of Chinese tech companies as national security threats, Taiwan is on Washington's list of 30 "clean countries," with all five of its telecom carriers recognized as "trusted vendors." This past Wednesday, the U.S. broadened the scope of its Clean Network program, aiming to exclude Chinese Communist Party-linked companies from sensitive networks -- everything from carriers and undersea cables to cloud computing and mobile app stores.

The secretary's trip also closely follows the death of Taiwan's former President Lee Teng-hui, the island's first freely elected leader who was instrumental in shaping the democracy that flourishes today. After Lee's passing on July 30 at the age of 97, the AIT lowered the U.S. flag to half-staff for three days.

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