A senior member of US President Donald Trump's administration landed in Taiwan yesterday for Washington's highest level visit since switching diplomatic recognition to China in 1979, a trip Beijing has condemned.
During the three-day visit Health Secretary Alex Azar will meet President Tsai Ing-wen, who advocates Taiwan being recognised as a sovereign nation and is loathed by China's leaders.
Azar's visit comes as relations between the world's two biggest economic powers plunge to historic lows. In recent days, Trump has ordered sweeping restrictions on Chinese tech giants and the US Treasury Department slapped sanctions on Hong Kong's leader over a tough law that curbs dissent.
Washington has billed the Taiwan trip as an opportunity to learn from the island's fight against the coronavirus and to celebrate its progressive values. But Beijing balks at any recognition of self-ruled Taiwan, which it claims as its own territory and vows to one day seize, by force if necessary. It has described Azar's visit as a threat to "peace and stability" in the region.
Washington remains the leading arms supplier to Taiwan but has historically been cautious in holding official contacts with it.
Douglas Paal, a former head of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington's de facto embassy, said the Trump administration was still paying heed to China's red line -- that no US official handling national security visit Taiwan.
Throughout the 1990s the United States sent trade officials to Taiwan with regularity.
The difference this time, he said, is the context, with Azar travelling at a time when relations between Washington and Beijing have hit a new low.