A senior member of US President Donald Trump's administration landed in Taiwan Sunday for Washington's highest level visit since switching diplomatic recognition to China in 1979, a trip Beijing has condemned.
During the three-day visit Health Secretary Alex Azar will meet President Tsai Ing-wen, who advocates Taiwan being recognised as a sovereign nation and is loathed by China's leaders.
Mr Azar is the most senior US cabinet member to visit Taiwan in decades and his visit comes as relations between the world's two biggest economic powers plunge to historic lows.
In recent days, Mr Trump has ordered sweeping restrictions on popular Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat and the US Treasury Department slapped sanctions on Hong Kong's leader over a tough law that curbs dissent.
Washington has billed the Taiwan trip as an opportunity to learn from the island's fight against the coronavirus and to celebrate its progressive values.
"This trip is a recognition of Taiwan's success in combating Covid-19 and a testament to the shared beliefs that open and democratic societies are best equipped to combating disease threats like Covid-19," a health and human services department official told reporters ahead of the visit.
But Beijing balks at any recognition of self-ruled Taiwan, which it claims as its own territory and vows to one day seize, by force if necessary.
It has described Mr Azar's visit as a threat to "peace and stability", while China's defence minister warned against Washington making any "dangerous moves".
Washington remains the leading arms supplier to Taiwan but has historically been cautious in holding official contacts with it. The rapidly deteriorating relationship between Beijing and Washington comes as Mr Trump seeks re-election in November.
He is trailing in the polls to rival Joe Biden and has begun campaigning hard on an increasingly strident anti-Beijing message.
As public disapproval has grown for his handling of the epidemic, Mr Trump has pivoted from his previous focus on striking a trade deal with China to blaming the country for the coronavirus crisis.
The two countries have clashed on a range of issues, from trade to espionage allegations and Beijing's human rights record such as the mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims and the political crackdown in Hong Kong.