TAIPEI, Taiwan — The United States’ top health official, Alex M. Azar II, will lead a delegation on a trip to Taiwan, a rare high-level visit by an American official to the island that is likely to anger China and further fray ties between Beijing and Washington.
The trip by Mr. Azar, the secretary of health and human services, will be the first by a U.S. health secretary and the first in six years by a U.S. cabinet member, the department said in a statement on Tuesday.
No date was given for the visit to Taiwan, a self-ruled territory that is claimed by Beijing, but the health department billed it as an opportunity to strengthen economic and public health cooperation between the United States and Taiwan and to highlight Taiwan’s success in battling the coronavirus pandemic.
“Taiwan has been a model of transparency and cooperation in global health during the Covid-19 pandemic and long before it,” Mr. Azar said in the department’s 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.”
As of Tuesday, the island of 23 million people just off the coast of southern China had reported 476 coronavirus cases and seven deaths. Officials in Taiwan have tried to turn their relative success in battling the coronavirus at home into a geopolitical victory. The island has sent millions of masks, emblazoned with the words “made in Taiwan,” to the United States, Italy and other countries devastated by the coronavirus.
It has also promoted itself as a model of democracy amid China’s own campaign to use the crisis to promote the strength of its authoritarian system.
The announcement of Mr. Azar’s visit comes as case numbers have been surging throughout most of the United States, where more than 4.7 million people have been infected and at least 157,100 have died, according to a New York Times database.
Chinese officials did not immediately respond to the announcement. But Mr. Azar’s visit will almost certainly enrage Beijing, which has long sought to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and has objected to U.S. support for the island, which remains an important, though unofficial, American ally in the Pacific region. Though the United States has been cautious in holding official contact with Taiwan, it continues to be the island’s leading arms supplier.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that Mr. Azar would meet with senior Taiwanese leaders, including President Tsai Ing-wen. Discussions are expected to touch on Taiwan’s role as a supplier of medical equipment and critical technology, among other issues, the U.S. health department said. The island is home to one of the world’s leading computer chip makers, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, and is a major manufacturer of medical masks and other hospital equipment.
The health secretary will also deliver a speech in which he will highlight “Taiwan’s constructive role in the international community, especially in global public health,” the statement said.
The trip threatens to further fuel tensions between the United States and China, with diplomatic ties reaching their lowest point since the two countries normalized relations more than four decades ago. The two superpowers have become increasingly locked in a fast-growing battle on multiple fronts, including in trade, technology, defense and human rights.
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In addition, Beijing has in recent years steadily picked off Taiwan’s few remaining official allies and has blocked Taiwan’s participation as an observer in the World Health Assembly, the World Health Organization’s top decision-making body.
The tense relations between Beijing and Taiwan dates to 1949, when the Communist Party defeated its Nationalist rivals, who fled to the island and set up the Republic of China government that still rules the territory today. Unification with Taiwan remains one of the Chinese Communist Party’s ultimate goals, and in recent years, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has bluntly warned that any move toward formal independence by the island would invite military force.
Mr. Azar will be the highest-ranking American cabinet official to visit the island since 1979, the year the U.S. switched its recognition of the Chinese government from Taiwan to Beijing. The last trip by a U.S. cabinet-level official to Taiwan was in 2014 by Gina McCarthy, then the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Health and Human Services Department did not say whether Mr. Azar would attend an official memorial that has been established in Taipei for Lee Teng-hui, the former Taiwanese president who died last week.
In a statement offering his condolences, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Mr. Lee, who led the island’s transformation into a vibrant democracy, crediting him with ending decades of authoritarianism and ushering in a “new era of economic prosperity, openness and the rule of law.”