Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Highest-Level U.S. Trip to Taiwan in Decades to Challenge China
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar will lead a delegation to Taiwan in the highest-level visit by a U.S. cabinet official since Washington cut ties with Taipei more than 40 years ago.
Azar is scheduled to arrive in Taiwan “in the coming days” to discuss the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic and supplies of medical equipment and technology, according to a statement on Wednesday from the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei. It is the first cabinet-level visit to Taiwan in six years.
During the visit, Azar will underscore “our shared belief that free and democratic societies are the best model for protecting and promoting health,” according to the statement.
The visit is the latest signal of U.S. support for Taiwan in the face of an increasingly assertive leadership in Beijing. Officials in Taipei have raised concerns that China may attempt to accelerate it plans to gain control over Taiwan after imposing a national security law in Hong Kong that is being used to clamp down on democracy advocates.
Taiwan’s defense ministry reported a sharp increase in the number of Chinese military incursions into the island’s air defense identification zone in June.
As tensions between the U.S. and China have heightened over issues such as trade and the rise of Chinese technology companies in the past two years, President Donald Trump’s administration has indicated its support for Taiwan. In recent months it’s approved a possible $620 million deal to supply missile parts and backed an ultimately unsuccessful bid to have the island participate in this year’s World Health Assembly.
China opposes Taiwan’s involvement in any organizations for which statehood is a prerequisite as it views the island as part of its territory, a claim Taipei rejects. President Xi Jinping’s government slapped sanctions on Lockheed Martin Corp. in July after the latest approval of weapons sales under Trump’s administration, which has included billions of dollars’ worth of F-16 fighter jets, tanks, and Stinger missiles.

Taiwan’s ‘Friend’

Azar’s visit comes comes after increasing criticism of his role in the U.S. response to the coronavirus. He was replaced in March by Vice President Mike Pence as leader of the government’s task force to combat the pandemic after repeated questions about health agencies’ performance.
An initial test developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was flawed, leading to weeks of delays for frustrated doctors and local public health officials who couldn’t check suspected cases. The U.S. has since made changes to the test and taken steps to expand availability.
The U.S. has reported almost 4.8 million cases of Covid-19 and more than 156,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Hailing Azar as a “friend of Taiwan,” the foreign ministry in Taipei said Wednesday he would meet with President Tsai Ing-wen during the trip. The visit “proves that mutual trust between the two sides is on a solid footing and communication is smooth,” according to a statement from the ministry.
Taiwan’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has been widely recognized as among the most effective in the world. The government has reported 476 cases of the infection and seven deaths since the pandemic began.
Taiwan’s close monitoring of information sources in China allowed it to spot social media chatter about a new SARS-like virus in Wuhan in late December before Beijing had warned the rest of the world. Health officials in Taipei immediately imposed screening for all travelers arriving from the Chinese city before later banning all travel from China in February.
Strict quarantine for all arrivals, contact tracing for all confirmed cases and widespread public use of face masks have also been credited as key reasons Taiwan has largely kept the outbreak under control. The government is already working to build out its stockpiles of critical medical supplies in anticipation of the next global health emergency.
The most recent cabinet-level visit to Taiwan came when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy gave a speech in Taipei in 2014.
(Updated with additional detail and comment from Taiwan foreign ministry from eighth paragraph.)

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