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US health chief Alex Azar to make 'historic' visit to Taiwan

US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar will visit Taiwan in the coming days, his office has announced, the highest-level visit by a US official to the territory claimed by China in four decades.

The announcement on Wednesday immediately prompted firm opposition in Beijing.

Taiwan is a key irritant in the troubled relationship between the world's two largest economies, who are also at odds over trade, technology, the South China Sea and China's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The US, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, having dropped Taipei in favour of Beijing in 1979, but is the island's main arms supplier and strongest backer on the international stage.

The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which operates as Washington's de facto embassy on the island, said Wednesday that Azar's "historic visit will strengthen the US-Taiwan partnership and enhance US-Taiwan cooperation to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic".

In a tweet, Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: "We look forward to welcoming" Azar and his delegation. "This is the highest-level visit by a US Cabinet official since 1979! Taiwan and the US are like minded partners cooperating closely in combating coronavirus and promoting freedom democracy & human rights worldwide."

The ministry said Azar would meet with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, with whose government China cut off virtually all contacts four years ago, along with Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and top health officials.

In Beijing, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry said Azar's visit would endanger "peace and stability" in the region.

"China firmly opposes official exchanges between the US and Taiwan," Wang Wenbin said at a regular briefing.

"We urge the US to abide by the one-China principle... stop all forms of official exchanges with Taiwan... and refrain from sending any wrong signals to the Taiwan independence forces."

China claims self-ruled Taiwan as its own and has threatened to annex it by force if necessary.

Azar would be the first HHS secretary to visit Taiwan and the first Cabinet member to visit in six years, the last being then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. His Cabinet ranking is higher than previous US visitors.

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

"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."

Azar's visit was facilitated by the 2018 passage of the Taiwan Travel Act that encouraged sending higher-level officials to Taiwan after decades during which such contact was rare and freighted with safeguards to avoid disturbing ties with Beijing.

China objects to all official contact between Taiwan and the US. But its increasing diplomatic pressure, including poaching Taiwan's few remaining diplomatic allies and excluding it from international gatherings including the World Health Assembly, has fostered considerable bipartisan sympathy for Taipei in Washington and prompted new measures to strengthen governmental and military ties.

Taiwan's strong performance in handling its COVID-19 outbreak has also won it plaudits while highlighting its exclusion from the World Health Organization and other UN bodies.

US President Donald Trump signed a new law in March requiring increased support for Taiwan's international role. China threatened unspecified retaliation in response.

SOURCE: News agencies