Taipei, Taiwan — U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen Monday in the highest-level visit by an American Cabinet official since the break in formal diplomatic ties between Washington and Taipei in 1979. Beijing has protested Azar’s visit as a betrayal of U.S. commitments to avoid official contact with the island that China claims as its own territory and threatens to use force to bring under its control.

Taiwan’s defense ministry said Chinese fighter jets briefly crossed the median line of the sensitive Taiwan Strait Monday but were “driven out” by Taiwan’s air force, the Reuters news agency reports.

Tsai told reporters at the Presidential Office Building that she looked for “even more breakthroughs and fruits of cooperation” in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and other issues to “jointly contribute to the sustained peaceful development of the Indo-Pacific region.”

Azar praised Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 and said its success was a tribute to the “open, transparent, democratic nature of Taiwan’s society and culture.” 

“It’s a true honor to be here to convey a message of strong support and friendship from President Trump to Taiwan,” Azar said.

Azar was to hold consultations with health officials and deliver a speech later in the day.

Azar’s visit was facilitated by the 2018 passage of the Taiwan Travel Act, which encouraged Washington to send higher-level officials to Taiwan after decades during which such contacts were rare.

China cut contacts with Tsai over her refusal to recognize China’s claim to the island and has brought increasing diplomatic, economic and military pressure against her, including by poaching away several of its remaining diplomatic allies and excluding it from international gatherings, including the World Health Assembly.

That, in turn, has increased already considerable bipartisan sympathy for Taipei in Washington and prompted new measures to strengthen governmental and military ties.

Closer relations come as Washington is enmeshed in a series of disputes with Beijing over trade, technology, the South China Sea and Beijing’s crackdown on opposition voices in Hong Kong.

Taiwan, an island of 23 million people, moved swiftly and aggressively to contain COVID-19 and has recorded just 277 cases and seven deaths from the illness.

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