Eager to find a foil for China, US President Donald Trump's administration is stepping up support for Taiwan, although a high-level visit to the island shows it is still treading carefully on an especially explosive issue.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is heading to Taiwan to showcase the island's stunningly successful COVID-19 response as Trump, facing a tough re-election with pandemic deaths climbing at home, casts China as the culprit for the disease.
The American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto US embassy in Taipei, highlighted that Azar will be the highest-level US official to visit, based on presidential order of succession, since the United States severed relations and recognized Beijing in 1979.
But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a hawk who rarely misses a chance to denounce China or declare Trump to be the toughest president ever, was uncharacteristically circumspect when asked about Azar's trip, which has been denounced by Beijing.
"Cabinet members have traveled to Taiwan previously. This is consistent with policies of previous times," Pompeo told reporters.
"He'll go there and talk to them about public health issues" including the quest for a vaccine, Pompeo said.
Experts say that even the Trump administration is aware of the real risks if tensions escalate over Taiwan, one of the most sensitive issues for Beijing's communist leadership.
China considers Taiwan, where the mainland's defeated nationalists fled in 1949, to be a province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.
Douglas Paal, who headed the American Institute in Taiwan during George W. Bush's presidency, said that the Trump administration was still paying heed to China's red line -- that no US official handling national security visit Taiwan.
Throughout the 1990s, the United States sent trade officials to Taiwan with regularity, Paal noted.
The difference this time, he said, is the context -- with Azar traveling at a time that relations between Washington and Beijing have hit a new bottom.
"Sending him to Taiwan shows respect for the old framework while putting a finger in China's eye at the same time," Paal said.
"The fact that they didn't choose to send a national security advisor or someone else suggests they are trying to come as close as possible to China's red line but don't want to cross it."
The Trump administration has taken an increasingly hawkish turn on China, with Pompeo in a recent speech saying that the four-decade policy of engaging Beijing had failed.
In recent days, Trump has ordered sweeping restrictions on popular Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat, and the Treasury Department slapped sanctions on Hong Kong's leader over a tough law that curbs dissent.
Paal said it was possible that hawks in the Trump administration would push more dramatic action on China before the November 3 election as Trump trails in the polls.
"I'm very clearly reading the Chinese as seeing that as a possibility and they are trying to avoid being drawn into that trip," he said.
Taiwan has built broad, bipartisan support in Washington. President Tsai Ing-wen has been hailed not only for her decisive coronavirus response but also, among US Democrats, for her progressive views including advocacy of gay rights, unusual for an Asian leader.
An act of Congress requires the United States to sell weapons to Taiwan to ensure its self-defense against Beijing's vastly larger armed forces.
In one of the biggest sales in years, the Trump administration last year approved an $8 billion fighter jet deal to replace Taiwan's aging fleet.
The United States has also been more assertive in calling for Taiwan's inclusion in international institutions, especially the World Health Organization.
Gerrit van der Wees, a former Dutch diplomat who teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University, said that Trump had initially seemed hesitant, delaying the plane sale as he sought a trade pact with China.
But recent actions including China's clampdown in Hong Kong, its mass detention of Uighur Muslims and its military moves at sea have changed perceptions, he said.
Now the Trump administration "primarily sees it as an opportunity to push the envelope in terms of strengthening and deepening support for a Taiwan that has built a dynamic democracy and is a 'force for good in the world,'" he said, using a frequent phrase of US officials.
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