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TAIPEI, Taiwan – The United States’ top health official lauded Taiwan’s democracy and its response to the coronavirus. Taiwan’s president hailed the island’s growing economic and public health ties with the U.S.

Yet just offstage from this show of bonhomie Monday between Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan was the looming force of China. Beijing claims Taiwan as its territory and underlined its opposition to official exchanges like Azar’s visit by sending two fighter jets toward the island just before the talks.

Azar’s trip, the highest-level visit to Taiwan by a U.S. official since Washington severed official ties with the island in 1979, pointed to the increasingly important role Taiwan will play in a brewing ideological battle between the two superpowers. The ruling Communist Party sees the interactions between Taiwan and Washington as a challenge to its sovereignty.

To Taiwan, the trip is a diplomatic coup and an opportunity to showcase its widely praised response to the virus. Tsai, in remarks welcoming Azar, said his visit showed that relations between the two sides “have never been better.”

“It is a true honor to be here to convey a message of strong support and friendship from President Trump to Taiwan,” Azar said. “Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 has been among the most successful in the world, and that is a tribute to the open, transparent, democratic nature of Taiwan’s society and culture.”

As of Monday, Taiwan, an island of 23 million, had reported just 480 coronavirus cases and seven deaths.