A US cabinet member visited a shrine to Taiwan’s late president Lee Teng-hui Wednesday, praising his role in steering the island’s transition to democracy, as he capped a historic trip to the island that has riled China.
Health chief Alex Azar is on a three-day visit to Taiwan that Washington has billed as its highest-level delegation since the US switched diplomatic recognition to China in 1979.
His visit comes as US-China relations plunge to historic lows with the two powers clashing over a wide range of issues from trade to military and security issues, human rights and the coronavirus pandemic.
On the last day of his visit, Azar visited a shrine and wrote a message of condolence for Lee, who died last month aged 97.
“President Lee’s democratic legacy will forever propel the U.S.-Taiwan relationship forward,” Azar wrote.
Lee was a towering figure in Taiwan’s recent history.
He defied China by pushing for the island to be recognised as a sovereign nation and earned the nickname “Mr Democracy” for the part he played in its transition from authoritarian rule.
Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, loathed Lee. When news emerged of his death, Chinese state media called him “the godfather of Taiwan secessionism”.
Despite being self-ruled since 1949, Taiwan has never formally declared independence from the mainland and Beijing has vowed to react with force if it ever does.
Both Washington and Taipei portrayed Azar’s trip as an opportunity to learn from the success of Taiwan’s battle against the coronavirus.
The island has fewer than 500 infections and just seven deaths, compared with more than 160,000 fatalities in the United States.
But the visit has also been an opportunity to ruffle Beijing’s feathers at a time when US President Donald Trump is taking an increasingly hard line against China as he seeks re-election in November.
“We will continue to support Taiwan as our friend and our partner across security, economic and healthcare issues,” Azar told reporters after a visit to a mask factory on Wednesday.
China takes umbrage at any formal recognition of Taiwan.
It called for Azar’s trip to be cancelled and Taiwan accused Beijing of sending fighter jets over a de facto border on Monday, the day the US health chief met President Tsai Ing-wen.
During his visit, Azar has repeatedly contrasted Taiwan’s open, democratic system with China’s authoritarian leadership.
In a speech on Tuesday, he suggested the coronavirus might have been stopped sooner had it emerged in a more transparent and democratic place, such as Taiwan, rather than China.
He also hit out at Beijing for keeping Taiwan locked out of the World Health Organization.
China has taken an increasingly hostile approach towards Taiwan since Tsai took office in 2016.
Despite the pressure campaign, she won a second term earlier this year with a landslide.