- The Washington Times
Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar is gearing up for a trip to Taiwan that will mark the highest-level visit to the island by a U.S. official since 1979 — and in the process add fuel to already white-hot tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The move — and a new agenda of moves announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designed to limit the scope of China’s high-tech sector — showed the willingness of the Trump administration to escalate the pressure campaign against Beijing even with U.S. elections looming in November.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden revealed Wednesday that he plans to reverse many of the recently imposed tariffs on Beijing, a centerpiece of President Trump’s China agenda, calling them counterproductive and accusing the administration of failing to work with allies to formulate a more effective response to China.

While Washington and Beijing have clashed on a number of fronts — including trade, human rights, Hong Kong and control of the South China Sea — China has always reacted with a special intensity to signs that the U.S. was bolstering the independence of Taiwan, which China considers an integral part of its territory.

Just after news of the Azar trip broke, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin demanded that the U.S. stop all forms of official communication with Taiwan. He warned of “severe damage to China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” if the administration follows through with its plan.

Mr. Pompeo sidestepped reporters’ questions Wednesday about the significance of the trip and maintained that the visit “is consistent with policies of previous times,” though he and other top U.S. officials were surely aware of how the news would be received in Beijing.

“He’s going there with a deep and important purpose,” Mr. Pompeo said of the trip. He added that Mr. Azar’s primary mission will be to discuss Taiwan’s success in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Mr. Pompeo accused China of trying to stifle Taiwan’s voice in international forums such as the World Health Assembly.

“We’ll go there and talk to them about public health issues as they relate to how we all move forward with respect to how we handle COVID and [opportunities] for therapeutics and vaccines moving forward,” he said.

With a population of 23.7 million, Taiwan has reported just 476 cases of COVID-19 and seven deaths and is widely seen as one of the global success stories in dealing with the coronavirus.

Taiwan’s success aside, the trip is just the latest in a string of moves by the administration’s China hawks looking to prove a point to China’s ruling Communist Party. Combined with other recent moves across the military, economic and diplomatic spectrum, the Trump administration has taken an aggressive new tack toward Beijing with the kind of tough stances Mr. Trump promised during his 2016 campaign.

Mr. Pompeo last month delivered the last of four major policy addresses by the most senior Trump administration officials outlining the threat China’s leadership poses to U.S. security and economic goals.

Chinese officials, not surprisingly, protested the trip and warned that it could have long-lasting effects on the bilateral relationship between the countries.

“The Taiwan issue is the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations,” Mr. Wang said at his daily briefing. He added that Beijing has lodged “solemn complaints” with U.S. officials over the visit.

Although the U.S. does not officially recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation, Washington maintains strong unofficial ties with the island and is a crucial supplier of weapons and planes for the island’s defense.

‘Historic visit’

U.S. officials have not publicly released further details about the visit, which is expected next week.

The American Institute in Taiwan — which serves as a de facto U.S. embassy — called Mr. Azar’s trip a “historic visit [that] will strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan partnership and enhance U.S-Taiwan cooperation to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic.”

In a statement with the AIT, Mr. Azar said the trip “represents an opportunity to strengthen our economic and public health cooperation with Taiwan, especially as the United States and other countries work to strengthen and diversify our sources for crucial medical products.”

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs echoed that excitement.

“This is the highest-level visit by a U.S. Cabinet official since 1979! Taiwan and the U.S. are like-minded partners cooperating closely in combating coronavirus and promoting freedom [and] democracy & human rights worldwide,” the ministry said in a Twitter post.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan has been excluded from participating even from the sidelines with the World Health Organization, following intense pressure from Beijing. President Trump recently announced the U.S. was withdrawing from the U.N. health agency, citing in large part what he said was undue influence by China.

In May, Mr. Pompeo said Taiwan’s exclusion from a WHO virtual assembly was a prime example of the organization’s kowtowing to China, which has long claimed Taiwan has no independence and is under Chinese sovereign control.

Taiwan is not a full member of the United Nations or the WHO, but has previously been granted observer status at past summits.

More broadly, the announcement of Mr. Azar’s visit comes at a crucial moment for the fragile relationship between Washington and Beijing — a relationship that’s seen dramatic new rifts open on the military, business and diplomatic fronts over just the past several weeks.

Over the July 4 weekend, the U.S. and China held major naval exercises in the same region of the South China Sea, a strategically vital stretch of ocean that Beijing increasingly seeks to control. The exercises were a strong show of force by U.S. military leaders who say China’s aggressive moves in the Pacific must be countered.

Pentagon officials stress they don’t want an all-out war with China but are prepared to battle it out with Beijing for dominance in the 21st century.

“We are now in this era of great-power competition, and it’s time that we woke up and addressed it, and that we compete much more vigorously with China than we had been,” Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said Wednesday during a speech at this year’s virtual Aspen Security Forum.

“Clearly it’s going to be the challenge of our time,” he continued. “I don’t see China right now as an inevitable threat — that we’re going to have a fight with them or whatever the case may be, but we do need to compete.”

Mr. Esper added that the core U.S. policy is to corral China and ensure it respects “international rules and norms,” such as allowing freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and other heavily trafficked Asian waterways, along with vital new zones of competition such as the Arctic.

The comments from Mr. Esper and Mr. Pompeo Wednesday also underscored how the U.S. and its allies are prepared to compete with China far beyond the confines of the military domain.

Last month, the Trump administration abruptly closed the Chinese consulate in Houston after alleging it was at the center of a major spy ring run by Beijing.

The Chinese Communist government responded by shuttering the American consulate in Chengdu, capping a major diplomatic tit-for-tat that ratcheted up tensions to their highest point in recent history.

Mr. Esper also mentioned economic competition with China, an apparent refo keep Chinese companies out of key U.S. tech markets, including data storage, telecommunications, smartphone apps and cloud computing.

“We want to see untrusted Chinese apps removed from Chinese app stores,” Mr. Pompeo said. “With parent companies based in China, apps like Tiktok, WeChat, and others are significant threats to personal data of American citizens, not to mention tools for CCP content censorship.”

With President Trump acting as dealmaker, Microsoft now is considering a major bid for TikTok, a move that presumably would allow the service to continue operating in America.

Mr. Biden, in comments Wednesday to journalists from the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists, made clear he has a very different vision for taking on China, saying its protectionist business practices have to change but that Mr. Trump has been “going after China in the wrong way” while alienating allies who could help us in the fight.

“The question is, What is the appropriate behavior that [the Chinese] have to engage in international trade with us?” Mr. Biden said. “They have to play by the international rules, and what we have done is, we have disarmed ourselves.”

• Lauren Toms can be reached at lmeier@washingtontimes.com.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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