Exclusive — Alex Azar on Taiwan: ‘Very Important Partner of United States’

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Azar touched down in Taiwan on Sunday, marking the first trip from this high-ranking of a U.S. official since the United States shifted formal diplomatic recognition in the late 1970s under former Democrat President Jimmy Carter from Taiwan’s government, the Republic of China, to the People’s Republic of China (PRC)–run by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the mainland in Beijing.

“Taiwan has been a very important partner of the United States, but also of the world community as a model of transparent, collaborative, and cooperative approaches to public health throughout the last several years, but especially during the COVID-19 crisis,” Azar told Breitbart News on Friday afternoon, ahead of his trip. “It’s important that I go to reaffirm the partnership that the United States has with Taiwan in public health, but also to hold up Taiwan as a model to the types of behaviors that are important in the international community.”

Azar’s visit to Taiwan comes amid the highest-ever tensions between the United States and Chinese Communist Party, as the coronavirus pandemic rages across the planet. It also comes as the United States slaps sanctions on Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam for being appeasing Chinese authorities in Beijing who have essentially taken over there–something that China’s leader Xi Jinping has long viewed as a goal for unifying Taiwan back into Chinese control. The history is complicated, but what happened is in the mid-20th century, as the Communists under Mao Zedong’s revolution rose to power in China, the old government–the Kuomintang–fell back to Taiwan where it established first a military dictatorship that would later become a democracy.

The Communist Party of China refuses to engage in formal diplomacy with any nation that formally engages in diplomacy with Taiwan. Since Carter changed U.S. formal diplomatic channels from Taiwan to China, the U.S. has established deep informal diplomatic ties between the two nations. Technically, neither country has an “embassy” in the other, instead just using formal government-backed nonprofits–the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) backed by the U.S., and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) backed by Taiwan here–to engage in relationship-building. Since the 1980s, Taiwan has been a democracy, and its current President Tsai Ing-wen has been particularly harsh on the Chinese Communist Party–and particularly close with the Trump administration. But, again, no formal such meeting like this–with a senior current cabinet-level U.S. official visiting Taiwan–has taken place since 1979, making Azar’s visit particularly important.

Taiwan and the United States have never been closer than during the Trump administration, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told Breitbart News during an interview at the end of a trip that Breitbart News took to Taiwan last year. Wu said the relationship’s strength was “unprecedented.”

“Overall speaking, the warmth and the support coming from the Trump administration these days is unprecedented and we enjoy these kinds of relationships,” Wu said in the interview in the spring of 2019. “As a result, you can rest assured, Taiwan will continue to work with the United States on whatever kinds of issues Taiwan can make a contribution.”

That only seems to have gotten stronger as the U.S. and China drift apart, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. During his Friday interview with Breitbart News before he departed for the trip, Azar drew a vivid contrast between how Taiwan handled the current coronavirus pandemic–and how China handled it on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan’s response to the virus has been praised the world over, and is a clear contrast with the Communist officials who failed on the mainland.

“Taiwan took immediate and strong action to close its borders, to restrict travel, to identify and isolate cases,” Azar told Breitbart News. “Of course, they’re an island, so they have advantages there and they have 23 million people. But, they were able to be on this situation right away, even though they are on the backdoor of Wuhan so to speak. With regard to China, China did not reveal to the world community the human-to-human spread of disease, the asymptomatic spread of disease. It took them a month and a half before they allowed the international community, through the World Health Organization, to come to China to learn about this disease, this novel pathogen. They have yet to provide the isolates from the initial case virus samples to the world community. We have consistently, the United States has consistently called on all entities in the international public health realm to be transparent and open with regard to public health. That was one of the most important lessons out of SARS. I think that Taiwan, having suffered during the SARS crisis earlier a couple decades ago, was extremely vigilant as soon as they were any indications of a novel pathogen coming from China.”

What is also particularly interesting about Taiwan’s success in battling the coronavirus pandemic is that it did so from outside the infrastructure of the World Health Organization (WHO)–not by choice, but because the WHO kicked Taiwan out at China’s urging. Azar told Breitbart News that he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo–at the direction of President Donald Trump–have fought to restore Taiwan’s World Health Assembly observer status, but Chinese influence inside WHO has prevented that. In so doing, WHO leaders have effectively banned scientific public health knowledge from Taiwanese doctors and officials–some of the not just smartest and effective, but also most generous in the world–from being able to help fight not just the coronavirus pandemic, but other diseases such as Ebola outbreaks in Africa.

“Four years ago, the World Health Organization stripped Taiwan of its observer status at the World Health Assembly–effectively the governing body of the World Health Organization,” Azar told Breitbart News. “For the last three years, at President Trump’s direction, I have personally fought along with Secretary Pompeo for that observer status to be restored to Taiwan. These are 23 million people who are a model of public health transparency, openness, and innovation. As you say, there are critical learnings that we can have from entity involved in public health who is doing it well. Those learnings should be shared, and they should be welcomed. I faced this soon after I came into office. We were working with the World Health Organization on the first of what are now three Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There was an outbreak in the Equateur Province and the World Health Organization desperately made a plea for $45 million of supplemental funding from donors to fund the response activities there. Taiwan offered a $1 million donation even as China did not offer anything. The World Health Organization refused that donation.”

Chinese Communist Party officials are very upset with Azar’s trip to Taiwan. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin criticized Azar’s trip at a press conference last week, saying that “China firmly opposes any official interactions between the US and Taiwan.”

“This position is consistent and clear. China has made stern representations with the US side both in Beijing and in Washington,” Wenbin said. “For the China-US relationship, the Taiwan question is one of the utmost importance with the highest level of sensitivity, and the one-China principle is the political foundation. We urge the US to adhere to the one-China principle and the three joint communiques, stop making official interactions of any kind with Taiwan, handle Taiwan-related issues prudently and properly, and not to send any wrong signals to ‘Taiwan independence’ elements to avoid severe damage to China-US relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. I want to stress that the one-China principle is universally recognized by the international community. Any attempt to ignore, deny or challenge that principle is doomed to fail.”

Chinese state media also attacked Azar for the visit, with the Global Times for instance running a headline saying Azar’s trip “intensifies provocation.” The piece from the Chinese-government-controlled Global Times also directly threatened “the danger of a military conflict will increase” if the United States keeps strengthening its ties with Taiwan.

Asked to respond to the Chinese Communist Party officials upset with his visit, Azar said he is not challenging the One China policy but is aiming to reaffirm the U.S. partnership with Taiwan on global public health security.

“This visit is in line with the United States’ longstanding One China policy,” Azar said. “This visit is about Taiwan, and reaffirming our public health partnership with Taiwan. This visit is about commending Taiwan for its response and for its transparent, collaborative, cooperative approach to public health and this trip is about the important of Taiwan having a role in the international community of public health because it has demonstrated it can be a model of public health.”

Azar also said, when asked if President Trump had a message for him to deliver to the people of Taiwan or what he would discuss with President Tsai when he is there, that is not at liberty to discuss his private conversations with either world leader.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss my interactions with the president, or the content of the interactions I’ll have with President Tsai,” Azar said. “But my trip is of course leading a delegation of U.S. officials for what I think is a very important public health mission to Taiwan.”

But he did say that he believes this trip will show the world that the United States and Taiwan have a “very robust” relationship on public health.

“I think this trip demonstrates the very robust U.S.-Taiwan partnership on global health and health security,” Azar said. “It’s one of many aspects of our strategic and bilateral relationship. I have had over the last three years extensive interactions with Minister Chen, the health minister in Taiwan. Taiwan has been a participant in the global health security agenda work–this is an effort to help elevate all participants’ ability to comply with the international health regulations. Much to its credit, Taiwan invited in Johns Hopkins University as its external evaluator in what’s called an external evaluation–this is something the global health security agenda requests of all entities, which is to bring an outside evaluator in for a transparent and open review of your public health infrastructure, data reporting, and international health regulation compliance. It is independent, third-party, objective, and transparent. They did that.”

The visit also comes as the United States continues withdrawing from the WHO, which Azar noted is an ongoing process. He did tell Breitbart News however that the United States intends to lead on public health around the world even more so moving forward without the WHO, through different other vehicles like “bilateral and other multi-lateral mechanisms.”

“The United States is in the process of withdrawing from the World Health Organization as President Trump has publicly stated,” Azar said. “The United States is, however, is and will remain the largest contributor to global health security and global health on earth. We just will choose to do so outside the vehicles of the World Health Organization through bilateral and other multi-lateral mechanisms, with greater accountability and greater results we believe. We believe the United States’ greater contribution will be even higher than now. Look at instances like PEPFAR and instances where the United States has been able to work directly with recipient countries in transforming the lives of hundreds of millions of people impacted by HIV/AIDS for instance. The president and we have been frustrated that in spite of the concerns we have expressed to the World Health Organization throughout regarding their need to hold member states accountable for compliance with international health regulations, to demand transparency, to demand sample sharing, that in its place the World Health Organization has instead criticized mask wearing, has criticized travel restrictions including a direct criticism of the historic action President Trump took to protect the American people by closing down travel with China in the early days of this outbreak even as China continued to conceal the full scope and scale of the outbreak and the nature of the disease. The World Health Organization actually criticized the United States for the strong steps we took.”

To conclude the interview, Azar made clear that the Chinese Communist Party’s decision to withhold isolates of the original viral samples–a lack of transparency that the WHO aided and abetted–has hindered the world’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s an obligation when there’s a novel pathogen to share in the international community not just genetic sequencing of the pathogen but the actual viral isolates,” Azar said. “That isolate can be important in crafting vaccines and diagnostics but also in determining the origins of the virus. The World Health Organization has a mission now that is trying to get started in China to investigate the origins of the coronavirus. Perhaps they will eventually yield access to what we call the initial case viral isolates, or the early generation viral isolates, as part of that. But those to date have not been shared in the world community. When there is annual flu, when there is potentially pandemic flu, it is vital that the nations who experience it first collect and disseminate throughout the international health community those initial viral isolates. It’s how we prepare, it’s how we prepare those vaccines, diagnostics, and other counter-measures.”

The World Health Organization did not deliver any consequences to China for this, he said.

“Well, the WHO does not seem to have posed any consequences, which is part of the problem, it has not even called them to account for this,” Azar said.

The broader consequences for the world because of China’s lack of transparency, Azar said, could not be clearer. It hurt the whole world’s ability to fight the virus and allowed it to spread uncontrollably.

“When you’re dealing with a novel pathogen, you don’t know the characteristics of the disease or its spread or transmissibility or whatever,” Azar said. “I said this back in January in press conferences. I said there is so much we do not know. We do not know whether this spreads human to human efficiently, we do not know does it spread by droplet or aerosol transmission, does it have asymptomatic carrier and asymptomatic spread of disease? What is the role of face coverings whether it is in aerosolized or droplet form? All of those are the types of questions that are foundational to effective public health response. If one country knows the answers to those questions and does not share that information, that impedes every country’s ability to mount an effective prevention or response program. That’s why the international health regulations that came about during SARS are so important in the world health community because we require this transparency for the protection of all of us.”