Top U.S. official's visit to Taiwan may anger China

Top U.S. official Alex Azar is set to visit Taiwan in the coming days, a move that will likely anger China, which claims the island as its own.

It will mark the highest-level visit to Taiwan by a U.S. official in four decades, and is likely to further inflame worsening U.S.-China relations.

Azar, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, will meet with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen during his visit, said the island's Foreign Ministry.

The Ministry added that the visit showed firm U.S. support for Taiwan -- and the closeness of their relationship.

In a statement, Azar said quote "I look forward to conveying President Trump's support for Taiwan's global health leadership and underscoring our shared belief that free and democratic societies are the best model for protecting and promoting health."

Despite having won global praise for its response to the pandemic, Taiwan is not a member of the World Health Organization due to Chinese objections; Beijing considers the island merely one of China's provinces.

Taiwan has expressed gratitude for U.S. support during the pandemic as it seeks meaningful access to the WHO.

Like most countries, however, the U.S. has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, having ditched Taipei in favour of Beijing in 1979.

But the U.S. is still Taiwan's main arms supplier and strongest backer on the international stage.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed a new law in March requiring increased support for Taiwan's international role, to which China threatened unspecified retaliation in response.