BEIJING – The United States health secretary Alex Azar landed in Taiwan on Sunday, the highest Washington official to visit the country since 1979, in a trip condemned by China.
Azar landed at 16:48 local time at the Songshan Airport in the capital Taipei.
The island has been autonomously governed since 1949 but is considered a rebellious province by China, with the trip further exacerbating tensions between Beijing and Washington.
Azar is due to stay in Taiwan until Wednesday and has been exempt from coronavirus quarantines.
Social distancing measures were observed during the visit, with officials undergoing COVID-19 tests on arrival, wearing masks and avoiding handshakes.
The US delegation will travel in special vehicles and use separate entrances and elevators in government buildings to help reduce the risk of contagion.
Azar is scheduled to meet with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Monday.
He will also visit Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control with his local counterpart Chen Shih-chung to witness the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the American Institute in Taiwan and the Taipei Office of Economic and Cultural Representation in the US.
The institutions are the de facto embassies of the two countries, which have been without official diplomatic relations since 1979 when Washington broke official ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing.
Azar is also scheduled to give a speech at Taipei University on Wednesday, which will be his last event before leaving the island.
The visit came at a time of escalating tension between the US and China, with the recent closing of consulates in Chengdu and Houston and a trade and technology war that Washington escalated this week by banning Chinese mobile applications TikTok and WeChat.
Taiwan’s status is a sensitive issue for Beijing, which has repeatedly threatened to use force to bring it under Chinese control.
Despite having severed diplomatic ties with Taipei in 1979, Washington continued to maintain relations and exchanges at various levels with Taiwan, which has angered the Communist regime.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin urged Washington on Friday to stop the sale of arms and military ties with Taiwan so as not to further damage US-China relations and peace and stability in the region.
“Re-establishing a formal relationship with the Republic of China [Taiwan’s official name] is a very attractive and romantic proposal,” said Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, a professor of strategic studies and international relations at Tamkang University in Taipei.
“But it would directly challenge Beijing’s red line – the ‘one China principle’ – and require extremely complicated diplomatic engineering that would bring chaos to all three capitals,” he told Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post.
Huang said the visit is unlikely to completely destroy relations between the world’s two leading economic powers.
“If it is smart enough, Beijing will just hold its breath for three months until the US election result,” he added.
Beijing has not yet issued any official reaction to the arrival of the US official on the island.