The recent visit to Taiwan by US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was carefully managed not to cause unnecessary upset to Beijing, while still showing Washington’s support for the self-ruled island amid growing US-China tensions, observers said.
Despite the timing of the trip, and the fact Azar is the highest-ranked official to visit since 1979, Wang Kung-yi, a political-science professor at Chinese Culture University in Taipei, said the US was not looking to start a fight.
“Washington did not want to provoke Beijing to the point that it could spark a military conflict,” he said.
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“By sending the health secretary instead of the state or defence secretary, Azar’s trip was carefully managed to avoid crossing Beijing’s red line.”
Nonetheless, US President Donald Trump would have been well aware that by sending Azar to Taipei he was making a statement to China’s leaders, while also trying to rouse the American electorate into voting for him in November, Wang said.
“Trump tried to use the trip to drum up support at home and boost his chances of re-election,” he said.
In contrast, Beijing’s relatively muted response to Azar’s trip – it voiced its displeasure at the apparent breach of the one-China policy but did not threaten any countermeasures – was probably intended to have the opposite effect, Wang said.
“Beijing doesn’t want to do anything that would boost Trump’s chances in the November presidential election,” he said.
In an interview on Monday, Trump said he had no plans to visit Taiwan before the end of the year and that Azar’s visit was merely to strengthen public health cooperation with the island.
When asked if countries such as Japan, South Korea “or even Taiwan” should seek to acquire nuclear weapons or hypersonic missiles, given China’s “recklessness with the virus, and its aggressiveness”, Trump said: “Well, I’m not going to suggest anything, but I will tell you it causes problems.”
On Monday, as Azar met Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the People’s Liberation Army – China’s military – flew warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, according to the defence ministry in Taipei.
Despite Washington’s show of solidarity, Song Guo-cheng, a researcher at National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations, said Taiwan should tread carefully in its relationship with the US.
“Taipei should be cautious about the warming of US-Taiwan relations,” he said. “Rather than looking at military matters like possibly joining the US-led Indo-Pacific war games or allowing the US to lease its airfields for use as military bases, it should focus on public health, economic, trade and cultural cooperation.”
By doing that, Taiwan could stop itself becoming a “proxy battlefield” in the event of a full-blown military confrontation between the two superpowers, he said.
Azar arrived in Taiwan on Sunday for a four-day trip. He is the most senior US official to visit since Washington severed diplomatic ties with Taipei in favour of Beijing more than 40 years ago, although former president Barack Obama sent Gina McCarthy, who was then administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to the island in 2014.
In his meeting with Tsai, Azar initially addressed the Taiwanese leader as “President Xi” in an apparent slip of the tongue that he later rectified.
Azar also met his Taiwanese counterpart, Chen Shih-chung, at the Central Epidemic Command Centre, where they discussed issues related to Covid-19 and witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding to increase cooperation on public health issues.
On the final day of his visit, Azar paid his respects at a memorial to the island’s late leader Lee Teng-hui, who died on July 30 at the age of 97.
“President Lee’s democratic legacy will forever propel the US-Taiwan relationship forward,” he wrote in a note left at the site.
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