The Trump administration recently dispatched Alex Azar to Taiwan in what became the most high profile visit in nearly 50 years. The US Secretary of Health and Human Services visited Taipei on the pretense of investigating the coronavirus pandemic.

Breaking with Tradition to Embrace Taiwan

Reading between the lines on Azar’s visit, however, it’s apparent that the secretary’s travel to Taiwan was about more than the island state’s handling of COVID-19.

The fact that Washington chose to send a top-tier official to Taiwan speaks volumes about how it views its current relationship with China, which claims the nation as its own. The US is actually one of the few states that refuses to recognize China’s ownership of Taiwan, even after it lost its place in the UN 50 years ago.

“China firmly opposes any official interactions between the US and Taiwan. This position is consistent and clear. China has made stern representations with the US side both in Beijing and in Washington,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said before the visit.

“I want to stress that the one-China principle is universally recognized by the international community. Any attempt to ignore, deny or challenge that principle is doomed to fail.”

The Direct Approach

While past American administrations have at times tip-toed around the issue, and none of them dared send high-level representation, President Donald Trump has taken a more firm approach with Beijing with fewer punches pulled. The result: Azar landed in Taipei, upsetting China, and stoked even more anger by criticizing Beijing’s response to the coronavirus.

Azar’s message for Taipei was one of unity, regardless of Beijing’s objections. That was the point: to prove to China that the US is unafraid of it. In a strong way, Azar’s visit to Taipei was more of taunt to Beijing than it was a courtesy for Taiwan.

A Mission to Preserve Democracy

“There are three overarching themes for this trip. The first is to recognize Taiwan as an open and democratic society, executing a highly successful and transparent COVID-19 response,” Azar said.

“The second is to reaffirm Taiwan as a long partner and friend of the United States, and to highlight our history of broad collaboration on health and public health. The third is to note that Taiwan deserves to be recognized as a global health leader with an excellent track record of contributing to international health.”

Taiwan’s Difficult Position

Azar’s first tenet was perhaps the most important. Beijing continues to encroach on island states in the Pacific Ocean. They are indisputably threatened by the Communist Party of China’s territorial ambitions and claims to International waters. 

Additionally, Beijing has shown no hesitation in suffocating democracy in Hong Kong. Naturally, Taiwan could be next and China has said as much, even going so far to threaten the use of force to reunite it with the mainland. 

Washington’s renewed relations with Taiwan comes amid a complete reshaping of US policy in the South China Sea. America is now highly keen to increase its support of state’s like Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines to deter further Chinese expansionist plans.

Virus Misgivings

Azar also seized the opportunity to attack Beijing over the coronavirus, which has become a popular tactic for the Trump administration.

“The Chinese Communist Party had the chance to warn the world and work with the world on battling the virus. But they chose not to, and the costs of that choice mount higher every day,” Azar said.

He added that if the virus had originated in the US or Taiwan, it would have been easily defeated. Although the virus has run rampant across America, the island state quickly took control of the situation when the virus reached it. While it boasts a population of 23 million people, only seven have died with a mere 480 cases. 

China Moves to Isolate Taiwan

Even still, China blocked Taiwan’s admission to the World Health Organization as an observer. The decision is one of several attempts to weaken the government of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Simply put, Beijing has sought to isolate Tsai wherever possible. As a result, America has an impetus for increasing its support of Taiwan.

“This behavior is in keeping with Beijing’s approach to WHO and other international organisations. The influence of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) far outweighs its investment in this public health institution – and it uses influence not to advance public health objectives, but its own narrow political interests,” Azar said.

Shoring Up Support for Taiwan

The Trump administration’s decision tp send Azar was about more than simply COVID-19. The virus pandemic simply gave Washington an excuse to shore up support for Taiwan at a critical juncture. After Hong Kong fell to Beijing, Taiwan could soon follow if it does not have proper assistance.

Unfortunately, most of the international community respects China’s claim over the island state, leaving few to help outside the US. Azar’s words, while harsh on Beijing’s coronavirus management, were more directed at maintaining a democratic Taiwan than its response to the virus.

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