Highest-level U.S. official since 1979 arrives in Taiwan

United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar walks off the plane. CNA photo Aug. 9, 2020

TAIPEI (CNA) — United States Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar arrived in Taiwan on Sunday afternoon, the highest ranking U.S. cabinet official to visit the nation since 1979, when the two countries severed diplomatic ties.

Azar and his delegation arrived at Taipei Songshan Airport around 4:48 p.m. on a U.S. Air Force C-40B aircraft.

The C-40B is a military version of the 737-700 Boeing Business Jet and is used as a special mission aircraft for commanders and government officials.

Receiving the U.S. delegation were Taiwan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tien Chung-kwang (田中光) and American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Director Brent Christensen, among others. All wore masks in accordance with Taiwan’s COVID-19 prevention guidelines.

AIT represents U.S. interests in Taiwan in the absence of official diplomatic ties.

Alex Azar (facing) and officials greeting him at the airport. CNA photo Aug. 9, 2020

Azar’s visit marks the highest-level visit by an American cabinet official since the break in formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei in 1979, when the U.S. recognized the People’s Republic of China.

The visit is the first trip to Taiwan made by a U.S. HHS.

Azar is also the first U.S. cabinet-level official to visit the country since 2014.

During the delegation’s stay in Taiwan, Azar is scheduled to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and heads of other government agencies, according to a U.S. health department spokesman.

While the exact dates and itinerary of the visit have not been made public, Taiwan’s foreign ministry said Azar will also meet with Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), as well as Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中).

He is scheduled to visit the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), and take part in a discussion with medical experts,”to strengthen the ties of medical cooperation between Taiwan and the US,” according to a foreign ministry press release.

CNA photo Aug. 9, 2020

Meanwhile, a media notice released by the AIT said Azar will witness a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signing ceremony between AIT and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in the United States in Taiwan’s capital on Monday, and attend a press event afterwards.

TECRO represents Taiwan’s interests in various countries in the absence of diplomatic ties.

According to Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, who will also attend the MOU signing ceremony, the event will take place at 3 p.m. at CECC headquarters.

The MOU will focus on Taiwan-U.S. cooperation in terms of medical and health exchanges, with more details to be announced following the signing ceremony, Chen said at a CECC press event Sunday.

AIT has not made public the full itinerary for Azar’s visit nor did it disclose when the delegation is scheduled to leave Taiwan.

Accompanying Azar on the visit are James Moriarty, chairman of the board of AIT; Mitchell Wolfe, chief medical officer of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Brian Harrison, HHS chief of staff; Garrett Grigsby, director of the HHS Office of Global Affairs; and other members of the Trump administration, according to AIT.