On Aug. 4, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced he would be visiting Taiwan, making him the first high-ranking U.S. official to do so since 2014. He arrived in Taiwan on Sunday and was greeted by officials from Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the director general of the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control.
In a media release, Secretary Azar said the visit “represents an opportunity to strengthen our economic and public health cooperation with Taiwan.”
Taiwan, with 477 confirmed cases and only 7 deaths as of August 10, has been praised for its model strategy against the coronavirus. The visit is also likely to feature talks on Taiwan’s “remarkable success battling COVID-19 as a free and transparent democratic society,” the release said.
Taiwan welcomed Azar as an “unwavering friend of Taiwan” – alluding to his support for Taiwan’s acceptance into the World Health Organization. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs added that the trip would solidify efforts to “steadily enhance such cooperative partnership on a global level so as to safeguard the shared values of democracy, freedom and human rights.”
The trip comes amid rising tension between China and the United States, with President Donald Trump repeatedly labeling the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which was first identified in China, as the “China virus.” Critics say Trump is trying to deflect blame for failings in the U.S. response to the virus. The country has more dead and more cases than any nation in the world.
While Azar has cheered Taiwan’s effort to join the WHO, Trump has attacked the United Nations health arm and blamed it for allowing the virus to spread from China. In June, the administration sent he U.N. notice that it would leave the WHO effective next year. The move prompted bipartisan criticism in Congress and protests from physician groups that said it would be a global setback in the fight against the pandemic. The U.S. contributes more than $400 million a year to the WHO’s budget.
China has been open in expressing its dissatisfaction with the Taiwan trip. Spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry Wang Wenbin warned that the trip would “seriously damage China-U.S. relations as well as peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
Amid more criticism among high-profile Chinese politicians and journalists, Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin tweeted the following:
“Why haven't high-ranking US officials at the level of Azar visited Taiwan in the last 40 years? Because it is an international rule. Azar's visit is a further breach of rules and a geopolitical show.”
This statement is false.
There is no “international rule” banning high-ranking U.S. officials from visiting Taiwan. While countries have been careful to engage in diplomacy with Taiwan, this restraint has been assumed to be out of courtesy for China, which considers the island part of China and rejects any claim of Taiwanese independence. Unlike the Communist Party-run mainland, Taiwan is a functioning democracy and has held elections since 1987.
Furthermore, a cabinet-level official last visited in 2014.
U.S. policy in Taiwan is coordinated by the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). Although the U.S recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole official government of China in 1979 via the U.S.-PRC Communique, it has stated in the communique that it would maintain economic and unofficial political relations with Taiwan.
Since then, the U.S. has sent a few cabinet-level officials to Taiwan. In 2014, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy visited and gave a speech at National Taiwan University. While the EPA is part of the U.S. Interior Department and technically not a cabinet-level agency, McCarthy held cabinet-status rank under President Barack Obama.
The current administration’s interaction with the Taiwanese government started out the Trump’s acceptance of a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The call signified a reinforcement of U.S.-Taiwan relations. Not only did U.S. increase weapons sales to Taipei, in 2018 Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act to encourage interactions between U.S. and Taiwanese officials.
Further, in March President Trump signed into law the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act, which announced the strengthening of U.S.-Taiwan diplomatic relations. Tsai called the legislation a “testament to Taiwan-U.S. friendship [and] mutual support,” while China criticized it as “crude interference” in China’s internal affairs.
As this year’s U.S. presidential campaign heated up, Trump’s anti-China rhetoric has grown. Trump has been a longtime critic of China’s trade policies. China is now reportedly backing out of a trade deal that Trump has billed as “the biggest deal ever seen.”
In the latest clash, Trump on Aug. 6 issued an executive order banning Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat from operating in the U.S., unless the companies provided certain information to authorities. The administration claims the popular phone apps’ invasive data collection threaten Americans’ privacy and national security.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang said the move was duplicitous. "The U.S. is using national security as an excuse and using state power to oppress non-American businesses. That’s just a hegemonic practice. China is firmly opposed to that," he said, according to a report by Fox Business news.