On the most senior visit by an American official in more than four decades, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar hailed Taiwan’s democracy and praised President Tsai Ing-wen’s response to the pandemic in comments likely to stoke tensions with China.
“It is a true honor to be here to convey a message of strong support and friendship from President Trump to Taiwan,” Azar said when meeting Tsai in prepared remarks. He called Taiwan’s democracy “an inspiration to the region and the world” and said he wanted to use the visit “to learn about how our shared democratic values have driven success in health.”
In comments to reporters, Azar said that Taiwan was “so scarred” by China’s lack of transparency during the SARS outbreak in 2003 that its people didn’t trust information coming from Beijing or the World Health Organization. He also said that the U.S. has fought for Taiwan to be included as an observer in the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s decision-making body.
Tsai called it “highly regrettable” that China has blocked Taiwan from participating in the World Health Assembly, saying her government could help countries fight the disease. “The decision to bar Taiwan from participating in the WHA is a violation of the universal right to health,” she said.
Taiwan has been a rare global success story in containing COVID-19, as the U.S. grapples with one of the world’s worst outbreaks. In keeping with Taiwan’s stringent anti-virus procedures, Azar’s delegation is abiding by measures including multiple tests for COVID-19, mandatory daily temperature checks and wearing masks at all times. He’s also scheduled to speak with Taiwan’s health minister on Monday and hold a press briefing, according to a person familiar with the situation.
The visit has drawn China’s ire as the U.S. challenges Beijing on a range of fronts, from the early handling of the virus to Chinese-owned technology companies to a new security law for Hong Kong. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin last week said Beijing was “firmly opposed” to the trip, calling Taiwan “the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations.”
The trip comes days after President Donald Trump moved to ban Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat and TikTok, owned by Bytedance Ltd., sending shock waves through the global tech industry amid increased fears of a push for decoupling the world’s biggest economies. The Trump administration has also led the way in condemning China over its crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, where media tycoon Jimmy Lai was arrested on Monday.
Azar’s visit has little to do with the virus and is primarily aimed at sending a message to Beijing as it increases diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan, according to Jonathan Sullivan, director of China programs at the Asia Research Institute and an associate professor at the University of Nottingham.
“There is a confidence in Taiwan, which this demonstration of American support will buttress, that it can live with Chinese pressures, limited as they are, especially during a moment when the backlash to ‘Chinese assertiveness’ is growing around the world,” he wrote in an email.
Taiwan has rejected China’s criticism of Azar’s visit, saying on Thursday that Beijing was a “global troublemaker.”
“What the Chinese government can do is stop making irresponsible remarks on the international stage” and stop interfering with Taiwan’s dealings around the world, ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said at a briefing Thursday. “What the Chinese government can do is ‘return politics to the people, listen to the voices of the people, and understand the needs of the people’ because the 1.4 billion people of China and Hong Kong deserve freedom.”
Azar’s trip coincided with a visit by former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to pay his respects to the late President Lee Teng-hui, who led Taiwan from dictatorship to democracy in the 1990s and reshaped its relationship with China.
In a meeting with Tsai on Sunday that could further worsen Japan-China ties, Mori conveyed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s condolences while the Taiwanese president said she hoped the two sides can work together to combat the virus. The group included Abe’s younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, who is also a lawmaker in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
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