U.S. Health Secretary to Visit Taiwan, in a Move Likely to Anger Beijing

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — The United States’ top health official, Alex M. Azar II, will lead a delegation on a trip to Taiwan, a rare high-level visit to the island by an American official that is likely to further fray ties between Beijing and Washington.

Mr. Azar, the secretary of health and human services, will be the highest-ranking American official to visit since 1979, the year the U.S. severed its formal ties with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with the Chinese government in Beijing.

No date was given for Mr. Azar’s trip to Taiwan, a self-ruled island that the Chinese government claims as its territory. But in a statement on Tuesday, the health department billed it as an opportunity to strengthen economic and public health cooperation with Taiwan and to highlight its success in battling the coronavirus pandemic.

“Taiwan has been a model of transparency and cooperation in global health during the Covid-19 pandemic and long before it,” Mr. Azar said in the department’s statement. “I look forward to conveying President Trump’s support for Taiwan’s global health leadership and underscoring our shared belief that free and democratic societies are the best model for protecting and promoting health.”

As of Tuesday, the island of 23 million just off the coast of southeastern China had reported just 476 coronavirus cases and seven deaths. Officials in Taiwan have tried to turn that success into a geopolitical victory. Its government has sent millions of masks, emblazoned with the words “made in Taiwan,” to the United States, Italy and other countries devastated by the coronavirus.

It has also promoted itself as a model of democracy, even as China tries to use the crisis to promote the strength of its authoritarian system.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said China was “firmly opposed to official interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan,” without mentioning Mr. Azar by name. The spokesman, Wang Wenbin, urged the United States to adhere to the “one China principle,” which holds that mainland China and Taiwan are part of a single country, so as not to “gravely damage Sino-U.S. relations and the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait.”

“China has lodged solemn representations with the U.S.,” Mr. Wang said at a regular briefing, adding that Taiwan was “the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations.”

Beijing has long sought to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and objected to U.S. support for the island, which remains an important, though unofficial, American ally in the Pacific region. Though the United States has been cautious about making official contact with Taiwan, it continues to be the island’s leading arms supplier.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that Mr. Azar would meet with senior Taiwanese leaders, including President Tsai Ing-wen. Discussions are expected to touch on Taiwan’s role as a supplier of medical equipment and critical technology, among other issues, the U.S. health department said.

The island is home to one of the world’s leading computer chip makers, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, and is a major manufacturer of medical masks and other hospital equipment.

Mr. Azar will also deliver a speech in which he will highlight “Taiwan’s constructive role in the international community, especially in global public health,” the statement said.

The trip threatens to further fuel tensions between the United States and China, with diplomatic ties reaching their lowest point since the two countries normalized relations more than four decades ago.

The superpowers are locked in a fast-growing battle on multiple fronts, including in trade, technology, defense and human rights. Both the United States and China have recently stepped up military activity in the region, sparking concerns about the risk of a clash over Taiwan or the South China Sea.

In addition, Beijing has in recent years steadily picked off Taiwan’s few remaining official allies and has blocked Taiwan’s participation as an observer in the World Health Assembly, the World Health Organization’s top decision-making body.

The tension between Beijing and Taiwan dates to the end of China’s civil war in 1949, when the Communist Party defeated its Nationalist enemies, who fled to the island and set up the Republic of China government that still rules the territory today. Unification with Taiwan remains one of the Chinese Communist Party’s ultimate goals, and in recent years, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has bluntly warned that any move toward formal independence by the island would invite military force.

Mr. Azar’s trip will be the first by a U.S. health secretary and the first in six years by a U.S. cabinet member, according to the health department. The last trip by a U.S. cabinet-level official to Taiwan was in 2014 by Gina McCarthy, then the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Health and Human Services Department did not say whether Mr. Azar would attend an official memorial that has been established in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, for Lee Teng-hui, the former Taiwanese president who died last week.

In a statement offering his condolences, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Mr. Lee, who led the island’s transformation into a vibrant democracy, crediting him with ending decades of authoritarianism and ushering in a “new era of economic prosperity, openness and the rule of law.”

The announcement of Mr. Azar’s visit comes as coronavirus case numbers have been surging throughout most of the United States. More than 4.7 million people there have been infected and at least 157,100 have died, according to a New York Times database.

Claire Fu contributed research.

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