“The Chinese side — the whole world — is speculating that Trump could make some even more severe adventures in his China policy to save his prospect of re-election,” including by breaching China’s “very serious bottom line over Taiwan,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
The decision to send Mr. Azar comes amid growing frustration in Washington over what is seen as China’s outsized influence on the United States’ relationship with Taiwan, now one of the most vibrant and prosperous democracies in East Asia.
No sitting Taiwanese president has been allowed to visit Washington, and ties between the United States and Taiwan are managed through quasi-official institutions like the American Institute in Taiwan which issues visas and provides other basic consular services.
“A lot of what the U.S. does with Taiwan has been so restricted based on Chinese reactions,” said Jessica Drun, a nonresident fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, a nongovernmental organization in Virginia that studies security and policy issues in Asia. “We have become oversensitized to China’s reactions and they’re aware of this.”
There are doubts about Mr. Trump’s personal commitment to Taiwan. Recently, John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, wrote in his memoir that the president had repeatedly disparaged the island’s significance, comparing Taiwan to the “tip of one of his Sharpies.”
Publicly, Mr. Trump and his administration have been far more supportive. In 2016, the then president-elect broke with nearly four decades of diplomatic practice when he accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen.
In 2018, Mr. Trump, over China’s objections, signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which encouraged high-level official visits between the two sides, paving the way for Mr. Azar’s visit. The United States remains the island’s top arms supplier, and the administration has approved additional weapons sales to Taiwan.