Health Secretary Azar to Visit Taiwan, Highest-Level US Official to Visit in 4 Decades

By Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers U.S., China, and Taiwan news. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
August 5, 2020Updated: August 5, 2020

TAIPEI, Taiwan—U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar announced that he will lead a delegation to visit Taiwan in the coming days.

The trip is politically significant given that it will be the highest-level visit by a U.S. Cabinet member since 1979—the year the United States severed official diplomatic ties with the island in recognition of Beijing.

“This trip represents an opportunity to strengthen our economic and public health cooperation with Taiwan, especially as the United States and other countries work to strengthen and diversify our sources for crucial medical products,” Azar said in an Aug. 4 press release.

“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.”

In response to Azar’s announced visit, Taiwan’s Presidential Office spokesperson Kolas Yotaka issued a statement, saying that the visit was “a testament to the friendship” between the two nations. She expressed hope that the United States and Taiwan can continue to “expand our global cooperative partnership, working together to safeguard our shared values of democracy, freedom, and human rights.”

Yotaka added that Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen will meet with Azar and his delegation during their visit.

The United States has maintained a robust, nondiplomatic relationship with Taiwan based on the Taiwan Relations Act, under which the former has continually sold military weapons and equipment to Taiwan for its self-defense against the Chinese regime.

Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province that must be united with the mainland and has threatened the use of military force to bring the island under its fold. The communist regime has also coerced governments and organizations into accepting its “one-China principle,” despite the fact that the self-governing island has its own democratically-elected officials, constitution, and currency.

Aside from being Taiwan’s chief arms supplier, the United States also sees Taiwan as one of its key allies in the Indo-Pacific region.

Azar’s visit marks the first U.S. Cabinet official to visit the island, though Gina McCarthy, a cabinet-ranking official and then-administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration, visited Taiwan in April 2014, which drew anger from China.

According to the press release, Azar’s visit will also “enhance U.S.–Taiwan cooperation to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic.” COVID-19 is the disease caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus.

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

Taiwan has garnered international accolades for its success in containing the virus, while donating personal protective equipment to governments around the world during the pandemic. As of Aug. 4, Taiwan has 476 confirmed COVID-19 cases and seven deaths, out of a population of about 23 million.

The HHS emphasized the contrast between how “authoritarian systems” and free societies such as the United States and Taiwan deal with the pandemic, stating that the latter were “uniquely equipped to drive global progress in areas such as medicine and science to help the world tackle emerging threats,” according to the press release.

Beijing has gone to great lengths to conceal the outbreak in China, and didn’t openly acknowledge the virus was capable of transmission between people until Jan. 20. According to Taiwan officials, the island warned the World Health Organization that the virus could be contagious in an email on Dec. 31, 2019.

Joining Azar on the trip are James F. Moriarty, chairman of the Board of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. Embassy on the island; Mitchell Wolfe, chief medical officer of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Brian Harrison, HHS chief of staff; Garrett Grigsby, director of the HHS Office of Global Affairs; and other members of the Trump administration.

On Aug. 5, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, at a daily briefing, said Beijing opposed any interactions between U.S. and Taiwanese officials. Wang also called on Washington to adhere to the “one-China principle.”

U.S. Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) took to his Twitter account to applaud the Trump administration for sending Azar to Taiwan.

“Especially fitting to send the Health & Human Services Secretary, given Taiwan’s incredibly strong handling of the #COVID19 pandemic. I know his visit to Taiwan will be beneficial,” Curtis wrote.

Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States, also took to her Twitter account to welcome Azar to the island, saying it was a “timely trip” to advance the joint fight against the pandemic.