Today US Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alexander Azar arrived in Taipei. The purpose of his trip is to strengthen economic and public-health cooperation between the US and Taiwan. Despite the benign nature of the mission, Beijing is not happy with Azar’s appearance. He is the most senior US official to visit Taiwan since the US broke off diplomatic relations in 1979, a price paid to help normalize diplomatic ties between the US and People’s Republic of China at the time. Sending Azar to Taipei appears to be a provocation aimed directly at Beijing by the Trump administration. Treating Taiwan as a peer nation goes against the PRC’s official position that Taiwan is a wayward province and not a sovereign nation. The Trump administration has made a priority of supporting Taiwan since 2017 strengthening relations, and increasing arms sales to the island nation.
This move irritates Sino-US relations and comes at a time when tension between Washington and Beijing is racing towards the boiling point. Human rights, trade, COVID-19, and the South China Sea are the main areas where the US and China are at loggerheads. Azar’s visit will undoubtedly raise the stakes in the South China Sea with China already threatening ill-described ‘countermeasures’ to Azar’s arrival.
Those ‘countermeasures’ could very well be underway as China has sent naval vessels, and other forces into the South China Sea. Taiwan, to the surprise of many in the region, has responded in kind, prompting China to escalate an already worsening situation by deploying multiple launch rocket systems, and amphibious assault vehicles to the mainland area opposite Taiwan. The move is a message to Taipei and Washington, reminding them both of PLA military power in the area, and how China is poised to launch an invasion of Taiwan with a minimal amount of preparation time.
If these moves are not the ‘countermeasures’ that China spoke of, then Beijing has something else in store.