US Secretary of Health Alex Azar's visit to Taiwan draws protest from Beijing

Mr Alex Azar will be the first US Cabinet official to visit Taiwan since 2014 and the highest ranking Cabinet member to make a visit since 1979. PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI - United States Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar will be arriving in Taiwan on an upcoming visit and speaking with President Tsai Ing-wen as well as medical experts on Taiwan's fight against Covid-19, said Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) on Wednesday (Aug 5).

Mr Azar will be the first US Cabinet official to visit Taiwan since then administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Gina McCarthy visited the island under President Barack Obama in 2014. However, Mr Azar is the highest ranking Cabinet member to make a visit since Taiwan and the US cut formal ties in 1979.

The visit comes at a time when US-China ties are at an all-time low. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed on Tuesday to protect Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists and campaigners who have left Hong Kong fearing for their personal safety.

"The Chinese Communist Party cannot tolerate the free thinking of its own people, and increasingly is trying to extend its reach outside China's borders," Mr Pompeo said in the statement he released on Tuesday.

Mr Pompeo's remarks came after Chinese state media reported last Friday that Hong Kong police had ordered the arrest of six pro-democracy activists living in exile abroad. The six are suspected to have violated the newly implemented national security law that gives Beijing unprecedented power over Hong Kong and its people.

Details of the visit, including the exact dates and an official itinerary, have not been released yet, but Chinese authorities have already spoken up in disapproval of Mr Azar's plans.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in a regular press briefing in Beijing that "China firmly opposes official exchanges between the United States and Taiwan".

"China has made solemn representations to the United States in Beijing and Washington respectively," said Mr Wang, noting that Taiwan was the "most important and most sensitive issue in Sino-US relations". He called for the US to keep to the One China principle and refrain from sending any "wrong signals" to Taiwan's pro-independence forces in order not to damage US-China relations.

In addition to Ms Tsai, Mr Azar will also be meeting Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and Health and Welfare Minister Chen Shih-chung, as well as medical experts and front-line medical workers handling Covid-19 cases.

Cabinet spokesman Kolas Yotaka said Taiwan welcomed Mr Azar's visit and that it was "a testament to the friendly ties between Taiwan and the United States".

Beijing's top envoy to Washington, Mr Cui Tiankai, said on Wednesday that Beijing did not want to see a Cold War break out between China and the US, and that relations between the two countries are suffering unprecedented strain, something both sides should work together to remedy.

"I don't think a new Cold War would serve anybody's interest," said Mr Cui.

Other US Cabinet officials to have visited Taiwan include former Secretary of Transportation Federico F. Pena in 1994, former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson in 1998 and former Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater in 2000.

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