Highest-Level U.S. Trip to Taiwan in Decades to Challenge China

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar will lead a delegation to Taiwan in the highest-level visit by a U.S. cabinet official since Washington cut ties with Taipei more than 40 years ago.

Azar is scheduled to arrive in Taiwan “in the coming days” to discuss the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic and give supplies of medical equipment and technology, according to a statement on Wednesday from the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei. It is the first cabinet-level visit to Taiwan in six years.

During the visit, Azar will underscore “our shared belief that free and democratic societies are the best model for protecting and promoting health,” according to the statement.

The visit is the latest signal of U.S. support for Taiwan in the face of an increasingly assertive leadership in Beijing. Officials in Taipei have raised concerns that China may attempt to accelerate it plans to gain control over Taiwan after imposing a national security law in Hong Kong that is being used to clamp down on democracy advocates.

Taiwan’s defense ministry reported a sharp increase in the number of Chinese military incursions into the island’s air defense identification zone in June.

As tensions between the U.S. and China have heightened over issues such as trade and the rise of Chinese technology companies in the past two years, President Donald Trump’s administration has indicated its support for Taiwan. In recent months it’s approved a possible $620 million deal to supply missile parts and backed an ultimately unsuccessful bid to have the island participate in this year’s World Health Assembly.

China opposes Taiwan’s involvement in any organizations for which statehood is a prerequisite as it views the island as part of its territory, a claim Taipei rejects. President Xi Jinping’s government slapped sanctions on Lockheed Martin Corp. in July after the latest approval of weapons sales under Trump’s administration, which has included billions of dollars’ worth of F-16 fighter jets, tanks, and Stinger missiles.

Taiwan’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has been widely recognized as among the most effective in the world. The government has reported 476 cases of the infection, and seven deaths, since the pandemic began.

The most recent cabinet-level visit to Taiwan came when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy gave a speech in Taipei in 2014.