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.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 4, 2020
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
Should I refinance my mortgage?
- It could be a good idea, because mortgage rates have never been lower. Refinancing requests have pushed mortgage applications to some of the highest levels since 2008, so be prepared to get in line. But defaults are also up, so if you’re thinking about buying a home, be aware that some lenders have tightened their standards.
What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
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.