United States Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar will lead a delegation to Taiwan, his office announced Tuesday, in a high-level trip that is nearly certain to anger Beijing, which claims the self-governing island as part of its territory. Taiwan is a key irritant in the troubled relationship between the world's two largest economies, which are also at odds over trade, technology, territorial claims in the South China Sea and China's response to the coronavirus pandemic.
But China denounced the trip, saying it opposed any official interactions between the United States and Taiwan and had lodged "stern representations" with Washington.
"The Taiwan issue is the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations", Wang said at a daily briefing. In the ensuing decades, both parties claimed rightful rule over China and have at times acknowledged the existence of "one China" even as Taiwan transformed into a de facto independent democracy without formally declaring independence.
Ross Darrell Feingold, a Taipei-based lawyer and political risk analyst, said the move would be welcomed by Taiwan and its supporters but cautioned against calling it a "breakthrough", pointing out that Mr Azar had previously met with Chen Shih-chung, the Taiwanese health minister.
Azar will be the highest level USA cabinet official to visit the island country since the 1979 break in formal diplomatic ties. "Taiwan and the USA are like minded partners cooperating closely in combating coronavirus and promoting freedom democracy & human rights worldwide".
During his visit, Azar will meet with President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said, which may infuriate China further.
The visit is believed to be scheduled for next week, although AIT said details on the timing and agenda would be announced later.
Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University and Taiwan expert who has just arrived on the island, said: "I can attest to the seriousness with which Taiwan is combating Covid-19".
The last cabinet-level trip to Taiwan was in 2014 when the then head of the Environmental Protection Agency visited.
While a visit by Azar will not be considered as provocative in Beijing as a trip by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for instance, it revolves around a charged, high-profile issue - the coronavirus pandemic - for which the Trump administration has heaped blame on China.
McCarthy's visit to Taiwan in 2014 sparked a protest from China's foreign ministry, which accused the USA of betraying commitments made to it about maintaining only unofficial links with Taipei.
Taiwan has been especially grateful for USA support for its requests to get meaningful access to the World Health Organisation during the pandemic.
The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979. "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".