Azar arrives in Taiwan amid tensions with China

Azar arrives in Taiwan amid tensions with China
© Greg Nash

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar arrived in Taiwan on Sunday amid growing tensions with China, whose officials have vocally disapproved of the trip. 

Azar is the highest-level official to visit the island in four decades after the U.S. switched official diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. 

The secretary landed in Taipei late Sunday afternoon and was greeted by Brent Christensen, the de facto U.S. ambassador to Taiwan, and Taiwan Deputy Foreign Minister Tien Chung-kwang. All officials wore masks and avoided handshakes, Reuters reported

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Azar’s three-day visit is expected to focus on coordinating the U.S. and Taiwan’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic and on improving economic ties between the countries. He is scheduled to sign a health cooperation memorandum with Taiwan, visit Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control and meet President Tsai Ing-wen. 

Taiwan has managed to record 479 COVID-19 infections and seven deaths, despite its proximity to China. Meanwhile, the U.S. has confirmed more cases and deaths of any country, surpassing 5 million cases Sunday and reaching 162,833 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.  

Azar is also the first Cabinet member to visit Taiwan since Gina McCarthyRegina (Gina) McCarthyFormer EPA chiefs endorse Biden, criticize agency direction under Trump OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Energy Department proposes showerhead standards rollback after Trump complaints | Interior memo scaling back bird protections is 'contrary to law,' court rules | Former EPA chiefs call for agency 'reset' Former EPA chiefs call for agency 'reset' MORE, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, did in 2014.

But China has expressed displeasure since Azar announced his visit, with Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, saying China was “firmly opposed to official interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan,” according to The New York Times.

China claims authority over Taiwan, which can be brought under its control by military force if needed. Chinese authorities have threatened to institute countermeasures because of the visit but have not disclosed specific plans, according to Reuters. 

Tensions between the U.S. and China have increased in recent months and years as the two countries engage in battles over trade, technology, the South China Sea and the pandemic.