US health and human services secretary Alex Azar at a 'Covid-19 response and storm-preparedness' event in the US on on July 31 2020. Picture: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER
US health and human services secretary Alex Azar at a 'Covid-19 response and storm-preparedness' event in the US on on July 31 2020. Picture: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER

Taipei — US health and human services secretary Alex Azar will lead a delegation to Taiwan in the highest-level visit by a US 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 US 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.

“Welcome US secretary of health and human services Alex Azar to our beautiful country, where you can breathe freedom and friendship,” Taiwanese vice-president William Ching-te Lai wrote on Twitter.

The visit is the latest signal of US 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 its 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 defence ministry reported a sharp increase in the number of Chinese military incursions in the island’s air defence identification zone in June.

As tensions between the US 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 $620m deal to supply missile parts and backed an ultimately unsuccessful bid to have the island participate in this year’s World Health Assembly.

Strict quarantine for all arrivals, contact tracing for all confirmed cases and widespread public use of masks have also been credited as key reasons Taiwan has largely kept the virus under control

China opposes Taiwan’s involvement in any organisations for which statehood is a prerequisite as it views the island as part of its territory, a claim Taipei rejects. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government slapped sanctions on Lockheed Martin 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.

Azar’s visit comes after increasing criticism of his role in the US 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 US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention was flawed, leading to weeks of delays for frustrated doctors and local public health officials who couldn’t confirm suspected cases. The US has since made changes to the test and taken steps to expand availability.

Taiwan’s ‘friend’

The US 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 on Wednesday he would meet 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 recognised 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 masks have also been credited as key reasons Taiwan has largely kept the virus under control. The government is already working to build out its stockpiles of critical medical supplies in anticipation of the next global health emergency.

Azar and his delegation will be under strict controls during the visit to prevent them from accidentally importing the virus, according to Taiwan foreign ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou. They will need to test negative for Covid-19 before departure, and be tested again when arriving at Taiwan’s airport via a charter flight, she said.

They will also undergo mandatory daily temperature checks in Taiwan, wear masks at all times and maintain social-distancing, she said. They will take chartered vehicles when commuting and avoid close contact with the public.

The most recent cabinet-level visit to Taiwan came when Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy gave a speech in Taipei in 2014.

Bloomberg

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