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US health secretary to visit Taiwan in first top-level visit for years

US Secretary of Health Alex Azar (United States Department of Health and Human Services/WikiCommons)
August 06, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. health secretary Alex Azar is to make the first cabinet-level visit of a U.S. official to Taiwan in six years, as Washington vows to take more steps to boost the democratic island, which China has threatened to invade.

Alez Azar, secretary of health and human services, said the administration of President Donald Trump wanted to convey its support to Taiwan, which he said had had “remarkable success” in managing the coronavirus pandemic.

“Taiwan has been a model of transparency and cooperation in global health during the COVID-19 pandemic and long before it,” Azar said in a statement announcing the trip.

“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,” he said, adding that the trip would likely strengthen economic and public health cooperation with Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and president Tsai Ing-wen.

Azar’s historic visit will strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan partnership and enhance U.S-Taiwan cooperation to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic, the statement said, adding that Taiwan had played a “critical” role in the international response to the pandemic.

Azar’s visit comes after Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act in 2018, as part of a policy of allowing high-level officials to visit the country, a sovereign state formed in 1911 with the fall of China’s Qing Dynasty and based on the island since the Kuomintang since the founding of the People’s Republic in China in 1949.

While Taiwan has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor formed part of the People’s Republic, Beijing has put intense diplomatic pressure on the international community for decades not to recognize its sovereign status, and has refused to rule out a military invasion in the name of “unification.”

Azar will meet President Tsai during his trip, which will also seek out fresh sources of medical equipment manufactured in Taiwan.

Support for membership in WHO

Kolas Yotaka, spokeswoman for Taiwan’s administration, the Executive Yuan, said Azar is also a staunch supporter of the island’s bid to participate in the WHO, something that has been blocked by diplomatic pressure from Beijing in recent years.

“Taiwan … looks forward to the continued improvement of Taiwan-US global partnership on an already sound foundation, and their joint defense of democracy, freedom, and human rights,” she said.

Taiwan foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said Azar would be visiting Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Control Center and talking with health experts.

“This visit by Azar will be the first ministerial-level visit from a U.S. official since 2014,” Ou said. “He will be the highest-ranking U.S. cabinet official to visit Taiwan since 1979.”

Taiwan health minister Chen Shih-chung said Azar’s delegation would be kept in a “bubble” during their visit, suggesting that they won’t be asked to go into a 14-day quarantine like other arrivals.

“It takes quite a lot of manpower to achieve this, although the visit will only be short, and they’ll be gone again in three days,” Chen said.

“Our community has been completely isolated [from the rest of the world], and this is so valuable, and not every country has been able to do this,” he said. “But we will [manage it] if the visitors are important enough.”

‘A diplomatic coup’

Lee Ta-chung, associate professor of international affairs and strategy at Taiwan’s Tamkang University, said Azar’s visit is something of a diplomatic coup for Tsai’s administration.

“No ministerial-level officials came to Taiwan during the first term of Tsai’s presidency,” Lee said, apparently referring to a shift in policy in Washington, which has announced an end to decades of engagement with China.  “I think the Taiwan Travel Act had a very important impact.”

Professor Tung Li-wen of the Asia-Pacific Elite Interchange Association said the trip could pave the way for higher-level exchanges in future.

“Obviously, there may be higher-level and more important positions in the future, who will continue to promote exchanges between Taiwan and the United States.”

He said a visit by President Tsai to the U.S. wasn’t out of the question under a Trump administration.

“It depends on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election [in November],” Tung said. “A visit by Tsai to the U.S. would definitely be a substantive possibility, given Trump’s support for U.S.-Taiwan relations.”