Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar speaks as Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen looks on during his visit to the Presidential Office in Taipei on Monday. Photo: Pei Chen/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar praised Taiwan during a visit Monday for being a "vital partner, a democratic success story, and a force for good in the world."

Why it matters: The highest-level visit by a U.S. cabinet official to Taiwan since 1979 shows the increasing importance of the island state, which China considers to be part of its territory. It comes at a time of heightened tension between the Trump administration and the Chinese government.

What they're saying: In a televised meeting at the presidential office in Taipei, Azar told Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen it's "a true honour" to make the trip and "convey a message of strong support and friendship from President Trump to Taiwan."

  • "There are three overarching themes for this trip. The first is to recognize Taiwan as an open and democratic society, executing a highly successful and transparent COVID-19 response," Azar said.
  • "The second is to reaffirm Taiwan as a long partner and friend of the United States, and to highlight our history of broad collaboration on health and public health. The third is to note that Taiwan deserves to be recognized as a global health leader with an excellent track record of contributing to international health."

Of note: Taiwan's quick, decisive action to introduce border restrictions early and implement a coordinated response to curb the spread of the coronavirus has been widely praised — including by the World Health Organization. That's despite China blocking the island from the WHO, per the South China Morning Post.

By the numbers: Some 23.8 million people live in Taiwan, but it's reported just 477 cases and seven deaths from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins.

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Why it matters: The New York City metropolitan area was seen as the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the spring. But strict social distancing and mask mandates helped quell the virus' spread, allowing the state to gradually reopen.