China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

US Health Secretary Alex Azar to Visit Taiwan in Rare Cabinet-Level Exchange

Azar plans to meet with several top officials to promote U.S.-Taiwan cooperation on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nick Aspinwall
US Health Secretary Alex Azar to Visit Taiwan in Rare Cabinet-Level Exchange
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar will lead a delegation in a rare high-level visit to Taiwan, the first visit by a U.S. Cabinet-level official since 2014, in a bid to promote cooperation between the two countries in combating the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Azar and the delegation will arrive in Taipei on August 9, a spokesperson for Taiwan’s cabinet said Thursday.

The trip comes as the United States and Taiwan continue to experience radically divergent outcomes from the global spread of COVID-19 after pledging in March to cooperate in researching and developing tests, vaccines, and medicines.

Taiwan has reported just 477 coronavirus infections and no cases of local transmission since April 12. Its strict quarantine, contact tracing, and mask wearing initiatives have won praise both within the country and abroad.

The United States had reported over 4.8 million cases and at least 158,000 deaths as of early Thursday morning, both higher numbers than any other country.

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Azar said Wednesday he was “looking forward” to the trip to Taiwan, where he plans to meet President Tsai Ing-wen, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, and other top officials.

“Taiwan has been a model of cooperation, transparency, and collaboration in the international community, and their response to COVID has been incredible,” Azar said in a Fox News interview.

Azar and his delegation will only be allowed into the country if they test negative for the coronavirus before leaving and again upon their arrival, Taiwan Centers for Disease Control deputy director-general Chuang Jen-hsiang said Thursday.

They will be exempted from usual quarantine requirements when they arrive in Taiwan, although Chuang said they will be required to wear masks “at all times” and will be restricted in where they are allowed to visit. Crowded areas, such as Taipei’s night markets, are off the menu.

“There are rules on where they can go,” Chuang said.

The exact itinerary of the delegation’s visit has not yet been made public, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that Azar will meet with COVID-19 responders and experts in Taiwan along with senior counterparts, including Tsai, and will give a speech to public health graduate students.

The visit, Azar wrote on Twitter, will convey President Donald Trump’s “support for [Taiwan’s] global health leadership” and “underscore our shared belief that free and democratic societies are the best model for protecting and promoting health.”

“Taiwan has been a model of transparency and cooperation in global health during the COVID-19 pandemic and long before it,” Azar said. “This trip represents an opportunity to strengthen our economic and public health cooperation with Taiwan.”

Azar’s trip to Taiwan will mark the first visit by a Cabinet-level U.S. official since 2014, when Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy visited the country.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday the visit was in line with past visits to Taiwan by U.S. Cabinet members, adding that Azar is “going there with a deep and important purpose.”

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“We wanted [Taiwan] to be part of the conversations at the World Health Assembly,” Pompeo said. “China has prevented that from happening.”

Taiwan dropped its bid for observer status at May’s World Health Assembly after it became evident a push by the United States and dozens of other countries would not be enough to secure Taiwan’s participation in a floor vote.

The U.S. has since begun its formal withdrawal from the World Health Organization, a move that garnered intense criticism at home and, in Taiwan, threw a wrench into the country’s longtime U.S.-backed bid to participate in WHO functions and assemblies.

Azar’s visit has drawn predictable criticism from the Chinese government, which has opposed Taiwan’s participation in WHO functions and asserts sovereignty over Taiwan.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Thursday that China “will take strong countermeasures in response to the U.S. behavior.” He did not elaborate.

Azar won’t be leading the only foreign delegation into Taiwan this month. Milos Vystrcil, president of the Senate of the Czech Republic, told Taiwan’s Central News Agency on Thursday he would lead a delegation to Taiwan on August 29 to promote economic and technological cooperation between the two countries and would meet politicians such as Tsai and You Si-kun, the speaker of Taiwan’s legislature.