TAIPEI (CNA) — Visiting United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar on Tuesday admitted that he “accidentally mispronounced” President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) surname during their Monday meeting but said no offense had been intended.
“In my remarks, I referred to President Tsai five times, in one of those instances, I accidentally mispronounced. I feel certain President Tsai took no offense because of course no offense was intended,” Azar told CNA during an exclusive interview Tuesday.
The incident occurred during their meeting at the Presidential Office, in the highest level visit to Taiwan since the U.S. switched diplomatic recognition to China in 1979.
In his opening statement, Azar mispronounced the name of President Tsai and instead said something closer to “tsee,” which sounds very much like the surname of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
Thereafter, Azar pronounced President Tsai’s name correctly on several occasions.
The incident had led to mixed reactions among netizens while Taiwan’s biggest opposition party the Kuomintang (KMT) expressed disapproval and urged the Presidential Office to protest to the U.S. side and to clarify that the president of Taiwan “is surnamed Tsai, not Xi.”
In response, presidential spokesman Xavier Chang (張惇涵) downplayed the incident, saying that it was simply a matter of mispronunciation and there is no doubt that Azar was addressing the president as President Tsai.
Azar and his delegation arrived in Taiwan on Sunday.
Meanwhile, during his interview with CNA, Azar said it has been a “superb trip” in Taiwan.
“I have been learning a great deal, a lot, about Taiwan’s response, the system they put in place (to combat COVID-19).”
He said following the trip he will share the message to the world that Taiwan is a model of a public healthcare system in terms of transparency and openness.
He also called on the international community, especially the World Health Organization (WHO) to “take advantage of Taiwan’s experiences and ensure that that learning and understanding, which is a model, can be shared with countries around the world.”
Taiwan has not been invited to the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s decision-making body, since 2017 due to Chinese opposition.
Although the U.S. has already announced its withdrawal from the WHO, effective in July 2021, Azar said the U.S. will still talk with Taiwan and other countries and take appropriate steps to advocate for Taiwan’s observer status to be restored when the WHA meets in November.
In a message to Taiwan’s people, Azar assured the Taiwanese public that they have a friend in the U.S.
“The United States values Taiwan, respects Taiwan, especially for its health response to COVID-19 and the U.S. supports Taiwan being held up in the international community, as an observer at the WHA, and countries should be able to get the benefit of learning from and about Taiwan’s experiences,” he concluded.
His visit is the first trip to Taiwan made by a U.S. Cabinet-level official since 2014.
Azar’s visit is also being billed as the highest-level visit by an American Cabinet official since the break in formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei in 1979, because of the health secretary’s rank in the order of succession to the U.S. presidency.
The health secretary is 12th in the order of succession. The highest ranking visit by a Cabinet official previously was by a transportation secretary, ranked 14th in the order of succession, in 2000.
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy visited Taiwan in 2014.
The AIT has not made public Azar’s full itinerary nor has it disclosed when the delegation will leave Taiwan.