U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar pays tribute to late Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui in Taipei, Taiwan on Wednesday. Photo by Central News Agency/EPA-EFE
Aug. 12 (UPI) -- U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar visited a memorial for late Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui on Wednesday as China condemned the United States for the Taiwan trip.
Azar, the highest-level U.S. official to visit the island since 1979, paid his respects to Lee, credited with Taiwan's transition to democracy, on the last day of the historic trip, according to Taiwanese paper Liberty Times and local press reports.
Azar wrote in a message of tribute at Taipei Guest House that Lee's democratic legacy would forever lead the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.
Lee, who died in July, served as president of Taiwan from 1988 to 2000. As president he continued Taiwan's transition to a multi-party democracy. Lee said after his presidency Taiwan enjoys de facto independence from China, but never quite called for Taiwan's independence.
President Tsai Ing-wen, who began her second term this year, has been more candid about her political views, and has rejected Beijing's view that Taiwan belongs to China.
Tsai has also said if China attacks Taiwan, the Chinese would "pay a great price," and suggested partners like the United States would come to Taiwan's aid.
Taiwan's opposition has strongly criticized Tsai.
Former President Ma Ying-jeou said Monday the United States would not come to Taiwan's aid in the event of a cross-strait conflict, Taiwan's Central News Agency reported Monday.
A Chinese strike of Taiwan would be executed on the premise the "first battle be the last," and U.S. military support would not come soon enough, Ma had said. Ruling party politicians slammed Ma for the comments this week.
Relations with the United States have been strained, but Beijing could be looking to dial down tensions with Washington.
The South China Morning Post reported the Chinese military has ordered officers to "not fire the first shot" in the event of a conflict in the South China Sea.
In July, the United States deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups, the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan.