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US sending highest rep to Taiwan since 1979 break in ties

The U.S. says Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar will visit Taiwan in coming days in the highest-level visit by an American Cabinet official since the break in formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei in 1979.

The visit will likely create new frictions between the U.S. and China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory to be annexed by force if necessary. Taiwan is a key irritant in the troubled relationship between the world's two largest economies, who are also at odds over trade, technology, the South China Sea and China's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. maintains only unofficial ties with Taiwan in deference to Beijing, but is the island’s most important ally and provider of defense equipment.

FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2020, file photo, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who is also chairman of the President's Task Force on the Novel Coronavirus, calls on a reporter after speaking at the Health and Human Services headquarters in Washington. Azar will visit Taiwan in coming days in the highest-level visit by an American Cabinet official since the break in formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei in 1979. (AP PhotoJacquelyn Martin, File)

The American Institute in Taiwan, which operates as Washington’s de facto embassy on the island, said Wednesday that Azar’s “historic visit will strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan partnership and enhance U.S-Taiwan cooperation to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic.”

Azar would be the first HHS secretary to visit Taiwan and the first Cabinet member to visit in six years.

“Taiwan has been a model of transparency and cooperation in global health during the COVID-19 pandemic and long before it,” Azar said in the AIT statement. “This 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.”

Azar's visit was facilitated by the 2018 passage of the Taiwan Travel Act that encouraged sending higher-level officials to Taiwan after decades during which such contacts were rare and freighted with safeguards to avoid roiling ties with Beijing.

China objects to all official contact between Taiwan and the U.S. But its increasing diplomatic pressure, including poaching away several of its remaining diplomatic allies and excluding it from international gatherings including the World Health Assembly, are seen as increasingly already considerable bipartisan sympathy for Taipei and prompting new measures to strengthen governmental and military ties.

Taiwan's strong performance in handling its COVID-19 outbreak has also won it plaudits while highlighting its exclusion from the World Health Organization and other U.N. bodies.

“In contrast to authoritarian systems, U.S. and Taiwan societies and economies are uniquely equipped to drive global progress in areas such as medicine and science to help the world tackle emerging threats. The COVID-19 pandemic is the most recent example of joint U.S.-Taiwan efforts to confront global challenges for the good of the world," AIT said.

It said Azar will meet with senior Taiwan counterparts, COVID-19 experts and other Taiwan partners to discuss the disease, global health and Taiwan’s role as a supplier of medical equipment and technology.

Details on timing of the visit would be announced later, it said.