Azar’s Taiwan visit is new thorn in strained U.S.-China ties

“This visit represents an acknowledgment of the deep friendship and partnership between the United States and Taiwan in terms of security, economy, healthcare and the values ​​of democratic openness and transparency,” Azar said in Taipei on Monday.

Beijing has been ramping up pressure on Taiwan, but that’s just one area where its increasingly assertive foreign policy and the ensuing pushback from Washington has burdened diplomacy on both sides.

Last month, Washington moved away from years of ambiguity and explicitly denied most of China’s maritime claims in the strategically important South China Sea, drawing Beijing’s ire. China says it owns the waterway and that U.S. naval activity in the region, including ships sailing near Chinese-controlled islands, threatens regional peace and stability.

Other disputes center on economic and human rights issues.

A two-year tariff war underpins U.S. action against Chinese institutions and officials. Washington has been pushing to exclude Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from the United States and its allies, a move China sees as a blatant attempt to limit its growth as a global tech powerhouse.

The U.S. says Huawei is beholden to China’s ruling Communist Party and has threatened to compromise the integrity of the company’s personal data and information systems. China says it has no evidence to prove that.

President Donald Trump last week issued an executive order banning deals with the Chinese owners of consumer apps TikTok and WeChat, intensifying the tech confrontation that could deny them access to the lucrative U.S. market.

The United States, which has imposed sanctions on Chinese companies and officials over alleged persecution of Muslims in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, is now turning its attention to China’s tighter control over Hong Kong.

As Azar prepares to meet Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Monday, Hong Kong police arrested newspaper publisher and leading opposition figure Jimmy Lai as part of a crackdown on voices questioning Beijing’s policies in the former British colony, now a semiautonomous Chinese city. part.

Washington has moved to revoke trade and other privileges granted to Hong Kong in response to China’s imposition of a sweeping national security law seen as an attack on free speech and political activism. China denounces such actions as an intrusion into its domestic political affairs, and Beijing-backed officials sanctioned by Washington, including Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, appeared to laugh off the penalties over the weekend.

Human rights complaints are a source of long-running tensions between the two sides, a problem exacerbated by Trump’s repeated accusations that China covered up the initial outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

Observers say accusations against Beijing are mounting and Trump is hoping that distrust of China will boost his chances of re-election in November. Democratic rival Joseph Biden has extensive foreign policy experience and contacts with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, but potential differences between the two sides are expected to persist regardless of who wins the election.

Beijing protested Azar’s visit, saying it violated a U.S. pledge to refrain from official contact with the island. Azar’s visit was facilitated by passage of the Taiwan Travel Act of 2018, which encouraged Washington to send top officials to Taiwan after decades of few such contacts.

“I would like to emphasize again that the Taiwan issue is the most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday. “The US side’s actions seriously violated its commitment on the Taiwan issue.”

The warming of U.S. relations with democratic Taiwan is largely the result of strong bipartisan support in Congress, but also appears to indicate a willingness by the Trump administration to ignore Beijing’s threats and push for an alternative to the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarianism.

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