US makes a rare nod towards Taiwan with call to discuss coronavirus

US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar (left) spoke with Taiwan's health minister Chen Shih-chung on April 27, 2020. PHOTOS: ALEX AZAR/TWITTER

TAIPEI (BLOOMBERG) - The top US health official spoke to his Taiwanese counterpart about fighting the coronavirus outbreak, a rare Cabinet-level contact between the two governments that is certain to anger Beijing.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar discussed giving Taiwan a bigger role in the global fight against Covid-19 in a telephone call with health minister Chen Shih-chung Monday (April 27).

The two also discussed US support for Taiwan's inclusion in the World Health Organisation (WHO), according to a summary of the meeting released by Taiwan's foreign ministry.

The 30-minute phone call signals a strong display of support for Taiwan given that successive US administrations have limited high-level contacts.

Relations between the US and China, already strained under US President Donald Trump, have worsened further as a result of the outbreak, with American officials accusing China of refusing to cooperate in fighting the virus.

China views Taiwan as part of its territory and opposes all official contact with the government in Taipei. President Tsai Ing-wen rejects Chinese claims to Taiwan, asserting the island is an independent, sovereign nation.

Tsai spoke to Trump shortly after his election victory in 2016 but before he had taken office, a move that elicited a warning from China.

There have been other Cabinet-level contacts in the past, including when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy visited in 2014, and Taiwanese officials occasionally meet with senior aides in visits to the United States.

Trump and some of his top officials, including Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, have criticised China for not providing enough information about the outbreak early on and preventing US scientists from being able to take part in fact-finding trips to Wuhan, China, where the virus originated.

Both men at one point repeatedly referred to Covid-19 as the "Wuhan virus" or "China virus."

Taiwan previously had observer status with the WHO but has been shut out in recent years. In a recent roundtable with reporters, Pompeo said the Trump administration supports Taiwan having an "appropriate role" with the body.

Azar, in a Twitter post, said he thanked Chen "for Taiwan's efforts to share their best practices and resources with the US."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.