WASHINGTON | Eager to find a counterweight to the Chinese adversary, the administration of US President Donald Trump is strengthening its support for Taiwan with the announced visit of a senior US official to the island, a cautious initiative on a particularly explosive issue.
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US Secretary of Health Alex Azar is expected in Taiwan to hail the island’s successes in managing the COVID-19 epidemic, as Donald Trump, struggling in the polls in an America still plunged in the health crisis, accuses China of being responsible for the pandemic.
The American Taiwan Institute, which serves as the de facto US embassy in Taipei, has said Mr Azar will be the highest ranking US official to visit the Taiwanese capital since Washington established relations. diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979.
But U.S. Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo, a hawk who never misses an opportunity to denounce China or claim Donald Trump is the toughest president in American history, has been unusually cautious this week concerning the visit of Mr. Azar, strongly denounced by Beijing.
“Ministers have visited Taiwan in the past,” he said Wednesday during a press conference.
Mr. Azar “will go there to talk about public health issues”, including the search for a vaccine against the new coronavirus, he added.
For Douglas Paal, who headed the American Institute in Taiwan during the presidency of George W. Bush, the Trump administration is aware of the risks of escalation on the question of Taiwan, one of the most sensitive for the leadership of the Communist Party Chinese. She refrained from crossing the Beijing red line: a visit to Taipei by US officials in charge of national security issues.
In the 1990s, US foreign trade officials visited Taiwan on several occasions, he recalls. The difference this time is the context: Mr. Azar is going to Taipei at a time when relations with China are at their worst.
“Sending it to Taiwan shows that we respect the system, while defying China,” he said. “The fact that they didn’t choose a National Security Advisor or someone like that shows that they’re trying to get as close as possible to the Chinese red line, but they don’t want it. cross. “
The People’s Republic of China considers Taiwan to be one of its provinces. The island is ruled by a rival regime which took refuge there after the communists seized power on the mainland in 1949, at the end of the Chinese civil war.
The Trump administration’s policy on China has hardened over the months, to the point that Pompeo recently claimed 40 years of dialogue with Beijing had failed.
And in recent days, Washington has passed sanctions against eleven Hong Kong leaders, including chief executive Carrie Lam, alongside sweeping measures against China’s digital gems TikTok and WeChat.
For Mr. Paal, it is possible that the hawks within the Trump administration will push for even more spectacular initiatives ahead of the presidential election on November 3.
“I see clear signs that the Chinese see this as a possibility and that they are doing everything to avoid getting entangled in this matter,” he said.
The United States severed diplomatic relations with the island’s capital Taipei in order to recognize the Beijing-based Communist government as China’s sole representative. They remain, however, with some ambiguity, the island’s most powerful ally and its main supplier of arms.
Washington approved the sale of more than $ 8 billion worth of fighter jets to the island last year.
For Gerrit van der Wees, of George Mason University, Donald Trump initially hesitated to deepen ties with Taiwan, in the midst of trade negotiations with Beijing.
But recent decisions by the Chinese regime, including the crackdown in Hong Kong, mass arrests of Muslim Uyghurs, and Chinese navy activities in the South China Sea have changed his mind.
“In this context, the Trump administration is indeed less worried about China’s reactions, seeing instead the opportunity to more closely support an island in Taiwan which has built a dynamic democracy and which is a positive force for the world,” he added.