HHS Secretary Azar to be most senior US official to visit Taiwan

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Health and Human Services Director Alex Azar will lead a delegation to Taiwan in the coming days in an effort to strengthen economic ties and mutual support during the coronavirus pandemic, the department said.

Azar will be the highest level U.S. cabinet official to visit the island country since the 1979 break in formal diplomatic ties.

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

FILE – In this Feb. 7, 2020, file photo, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who is also chairman of the President’s Task Force on the Novel Coronavirus, speaks at the Health and Human Services headquarters in Washington. Azar will visit Taiwan in coming days in the highest-level visit by an American Cabinet official since the break in formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei in 1979. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

The trip is expected to provoke China’s ire as the government considers Taiwan a territory to be annexed by force if necessary.

In May, Beijing said the U.S. had “seriously violated” the One China policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen on her second term.

The trip comes amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and China over the coronavirus, trade, Hong Kong and consulates forced to close over accusations of spying.

The U.S. maintains only unofficial ties with Taiwan in deference to China.

The department said the trip was part of the Taiwan Travel Act, which President Trump signed into law in 2018 to strengthen the relationship between the two countries. HHS also remarked on Taiwan’s success with the pandemic and  called its role in the international community “critical.”

During the visit, Azar will meet with Taiwanese counterparts to discuss the response to the pandemic and Taiwan’s role as a global supplier of medical equipment.

Azar will be the first HHS secretary to visit Taiwan and the first Cabinet member to visit in six years since then-Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy visited in 2014.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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