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U.S. Health Chief Meets Taiwan’s Leader, Fueling China Tensions

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 8/10/2020 Samson Ellis and Cindy Wang
Alex Azar wearing a suit and tie: Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), speaks during an executive order signing ceremony on lowering drug prices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, July 24, 2020. President Donald Trump announced new policies aimed at lowering prescription drug prices under Medicare by linking them to rates paid in other countries and allowing Americans to buy prescription medication imported from Canada. © Bloomberg Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), speaks during an executive order signing ceremony on lowering drug prices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, July 24, 2020. President Donald Trump announced new policies aimed at lowering prescription drug prices under Medicare by linking them to rates paid in other countries and allowing Americans to buy prescription medication imported from Canada.

(Bloomberg) -- On the most senior visit by an American official in more than four decades, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar hailed Taiwan’s democracy and praised President Tsai Ing-wen’s response to the pandemic in comments likely to stoke tensions with China.

“It is a true honor to be here to convey a message of strong support and friendship from President Trump to Taiwan,” Azar said when meeting Tsai in prepared remarks. He called Taiwan’s democracy “an inspiration to the region and the world” and said he wanted to use the visit “to learn about how our shared democratic values have driven success in health.”

Azar later witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding that called for strengthening cooperation on global health security and developing vaccines -- the first such agreement between U.S. and Taiwanese health authorities. He said that the U.S. would remain the largest funder of public health even after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization.

“We will of course talk to Taiwan and other entities as we go forward,” he added.

Azar said that Taiwan was “so scarred” by China’s lack of transparency during the SARS outbreak in 2003 that its people didn’t trust information coming from Beijing or the WHO. He also said that the U.S. has fought for Taiwan to be included as an observer in the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s decision-making body.

Tsai called it “highly regrettable” that China has blocked Taiwan from participating in the World Health Assembly, saying her government could help countries fight the disease. “The decision to bar Taiwan from participating in the WHA is a violation of the universal right to health,” she said.

Taiwan has been a rare global success story in containing Covid-19, as the U.S. grapples with one of the world’s worst outbreaks. In keeping with Taiwan’s stringent anti-virus procedures, Azar’s delegation is abiding by measures including multiple tests for Covid-19, mandatory daily temperature checks and wearing masks at all times. He’s also scheduled to speak with Taiwan’s health minister on Monday and hold a press briefing, according to a person familiar with the situation.

The visit has drawn China’s ire as the U.S. challenges Beijing on a range of fronts, from the early handling of the virus to Chinese-owned technology companies to a new security law for Hong Kong. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Monday repeated Beijing’s objections to the visit, calling Taiwan “the most important and sensitive in China-U.S. relations.”

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The trip comes days after Trump moved to ban Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat and TikTok, owned by Bytedance Ltd., sending shock waves through the global tech industry amid increased fears of a push for decoupling the world’s biggest economies. The Trump administration has also led the way in condemning China over its crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, where media tycoon Jimmy Lai was arrested on Monday.

Azar’s visit has little to do with the virus and is primarily aimed at sending a message to Beijing as it increases diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan, according to Jonathan Sullivan, director of China programs at the Asia Research Institute and an associate professor at the University of Nottingham.

“There is a confidence in Taiwan, which this demonstration of American support will buttress, that it can live with Chinese pressures, limited as they are, especially during a moment when the backlash to ‘Chinese assertiveness’ is growing around the world,” he wrote in an email.

Chinese fighter jets crossed the mid line of the Taiwan Strait briefly at about 9 a.m. Monday morning and departed after Taiwan jets responded and ordered them to leave, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said in statement. Beijing has recently increased its patrols of military aircraft and vessels around Taiwan, regularly encroaching into its air defense identification zone and occasionally crossing the middle line of the strait.

The U.S. has responded in kind, sending its warships through the strait in what it deems freedom of navigation operations. The Trump administration has also made moves to bolster Taiwan’s ability to defend itself, approving the sales of billions in advanced weaponry over the past two years, including 66 F-16s -- the first sale of fighter jets to Taiwan since the early 1990s.

(Updates with Azar comments in third paragraph)

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