As U.S. and Taiwan Celebrate a Bond, China Responds With Screaming Jets


TAIPEI, Taiwan — The United States’ top health official lauded Taiwan’s democracy and its response to the coronavirus. Taiwan’s president hailed the island’s growing economic and public health ties with the United States.

Yet just offstage from this show of bonhomie on Monday between Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, and President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan was the looming force of China. Beijing claims Taiwan as its territory and underlined its opposition to official exchanges like Mr. Azar’s visit by sending two fighter jets toward the island just before the talks.

Mr. Azar’s trip, the highest-level visit to Taiwan by an American official since Washington severed official ties with the island in 1979, pointed to the increasingly important role Taiwan will play in a brewing ideological battle between the two superpowers. Taiwan and the United States have frequently framed their alliance as one based on “shared democratic values,” and China’s reaction was a reminder of the risks the island faces as it seeks a stronger relationship with Washington.

To Taiwan, the trip is a diplomatic coup and an opportunity to showcase its widely praised response to the virus, which it achieved despite efforts by China to diplomatically isolate the island. Ms. Tsai, in remarks welcoming Mr. Azar, said his visit showed that relations between the two sides “have never been better.”

To Beijing, the visit is considered yet another provocation from the United States at the most volatile time in the bilateral relationship in decades. The ruling Communist Party sees the interactions between Taiwan and Washington as a challenge to its sovereignty and in defiance of its threats to unify the island with the mainland by force.

To the Trump administration, Mr. Azar’s visit is a chance to take a jab at China, which has sought to spin the coronavirus crisis as a testament to the strength of its authoritarian system. It is a way for Washington to show that it backs Taiwan in the face of increasing efforts by China to keep the island off the international stage.

“It is a true honor to be here to convey a message of strong support and friendship from President Trump to Taiwan,” Mr. Azar said in remarks at the Taiwanese presidential office before heading into a meeting with Ms. Tsai. “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.”

“Over the last few months, Taiwan and the U.S. have worked together to confront the challenge posed by the Covid-19 pandemic,” Ms. Tsai said during the talks with Mr. Azar. The two officials wore blue surgical masks as they met.

“When the people of Taiwan saw footage of White House officials wearing ‘Made in Taiwan’ masks, they were happy that these products were helping people in partner countries,” she said.

Beijing also lodged a formal complaint with Washington about Mr. Azar’s visit, vowing to take countermeasures as it warned the United States not to “gravely damage” relations. There are concerns that as the U.S. election approaches, the Trump administration — which has sought to rally opposition to China as Mr. Trump trails in the polls — could make an overture toward Taiwan that it can’t easily walk back.

“The Chinese side — the whole world — is speculating that Trump could make some even more severe adventures in his China policy to save his prospect of re-election,” including by breaching China’s “very serious bottom line over Taiwan,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

China has long been a complicating factor in the United States’ relationship with Taiwan, now one of the most vibrant and prosperous democracies in East Asia.

Concerns about angering Beijing have meant that no sitting Taiwanese president has been allowed to visit Washington. Ties between the United States and Taiwan are managed through quasi-official institutions like the American Institute in Taiwan, which issues visas and provides other basic consular services. The last cabinet-level visit to Taiwan was a 2014 trip by Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency at the time.

“A lot of what the U.S. does with Taiwan has been so restricted based on Chinese reactions,” said Jessica Drun, a nonresident fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, a nongovernmental organization in Virginia that studies security and policy issues in Asia. “We have become oversensitized to China’s reactions, and they’re aware of this.”

There are doubts about Mr. Trump’s personal commitment to Taiwan. Recently, John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, wrote in his memoir that the president had repeatedly disparaged the island’s significance, comparing Taiwan to the “tip of one of his Sharpies.”

Publicly, Mr. Trump and his administration have been far more supportive. In 2016, just before he took office, he broke with nearly four decades of diplomatic practice when he accepted a congratulatory phone call from Ms. Tsai. China largely dismissed the call, characterizing it as “a petty action by the Taiwan side.”


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