The U.S. health chief praised Taiwan for its democracy and handling of the coronavirus pandemic Monday as the highest-level U.S. visit to the island in four decades took place amid simmering tensions between Beijing and Washington.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar’s comments came as the Chinese foreign ministry announced retaliatory sanctions against a number of U.S. officials including Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Reuters reported.
The move was in response to Washington’s move last week to impose sanctions on Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and other officials it accused of curtailing political freedoms in the territory.
Beijing and Washington have been engaged in an escalating dispute over a growing number of issues, including trade, technology, human rights, crackdown on opposition in Hong Kong, territorial claims in the South China Sea and China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Azar met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen Monday and said he was visiting the island to convey “a message of strong support and friendship” from President Donald Trump.
“Under President Trump, the United States has expressed our admiration for Taiwan’s democratic success in tangible ways,” Azar said.
Shortly before the meeting, multiple Chinese jets briefly crossed the median line into Taiwan’s side of the sensitive and narrow strait which separates the neighboring countries, the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense told NBC News.
The Chinese foreign ministry on Monday urged the U.S. to refrain from any form of official exchanges with Taiwan “so as not to seriously damage China-U.S. cooperation” as well as peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
Washington broke off official ties with Taipei in 1979 in favor of Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its own territory to be annexed by force if necessary.
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Azar arrived at Taipei’s downtown Songshan airport on a U.S. government aircraft late Sunday afternoon and was met by Brent Christensen, the de facto U.S. ambassador to Taiwan.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, there were no handshakes and all officials wore masks, including Azar.
Speaking with Tsai, Azar praised Taiwan for its handling of the health crisis.
The island of 23 million people has managed to contain COVID-19 and avoid a complete lockdown, recording just 480 cases and seven deaths since the start of the pandemic.
“Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 has been among the most successful in the world, and that is a tribute to the open, transparent, democratic nature of Taiwan’s society and culture,” Azar said.
The U.S. surpassed 5 million coronavirus cases over the weekend, with over 163,000 people dead and the Trump administration facing growing criticism for its handling of the pandemic.
Tsai told Azar his visit represented “a huge step forward” in the countries’ bilateral cooperation on COVID-19.
The U.S. has sought to allow Taiwan to contribute to The World Health Organization’s (WHO) meetings and share its experience. Taiwan is not a member of the WHO and did not get invited to the World Health Assembly, a key annual meeting, in May.
China has opposed its membership.
“I would like to emphasize once again that political considerations should not override the human right to health,” Tsai said.
Eric Baculinao and Ed Flanagan contributed.