China Warns U.S., Taiwan After Azar Visit: 'People Who Play With Fire Will Burn Themselves'

China has warned the U.S. and Taiwan that closer bilateral cooperation risks negative blowback from Beijing, after Health Secretary Alex Azar visited the democratic island this week.

During his visit, Azar expressed continued support for Taiwan from Washington, D.C., where there is growing bipartisan desire to challenge perceived Chinese expansionism. He also attacked China's response to the COVID-19 coronavirus, accusing Beijing of failing the international community.

The pandemic is one element of deteriorating U.S.-Chinese relations, which have taken a nosedive since President Donald Trump took office. Beijing and Washington have repeatedly clashed over trade, technology, territorial disputes, human rights, and Taiwan.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily news briefing Wednesday that Beijing remains opposed to any official U.S.-Taiwan ties. Zhao said: "People who play with fire will burn themselves," Beijing Daily reported, with Reuters and China's official state-run Xinhua news publishing similar translations.

Taiwan has long been a flashpoint in U.S.-Chinese relations. Independent since 1947 as a result of the Chinese Civil War, Beijing considers the democratic island to be a wayward territory and has vowed to bring it under Chinese Communist Party control either by diplomacy or force.

The U.S. has supported Taipei's independence with weapons sales and is legally bound to help defend the island against any invasion. The U.S. still does not officially recognize Taiwan, per long-standing policy.

Beijing has repeatedly warned that closer ties between Washington and Taipei could prompt Chinese retaliation. The Chinese armed forces have maintained a regular program of naval and aerial operations around Taiwan and in the Taiwan Strait—the strategic waterway that is 80 miles wide at its narrowest point.

The U.S. also conducts naval and aerial operations in the Strait and has flown military aircraft over the island, prompting protests from China. Beijing has also expressed anger over proposed U.S. weapon sales to Taiwan, which it says threatens regional peace.

In recent weeks, the U.S. and China have increased their activity in the South China Sea, causing concern that the two militaries could engage each other as tensions rise. The South China Morning Post reported that Beijing told its forces not to fire first.

Azar gave a speech in Taipei on Tuesday and brought "greetings from a great friend of Taiwan—President Donald J. Trump." Azar lauded the island nation as a "shining star in the Indo-Pacific and a treasured friend of the United States."

The Trump Administration official celebrated Taiwan's success in containing COVID-19 despite its proximity to China, the island having recorded only 480 infections and seven deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

He said that the CCP "had the chance to warn the world and work with the world on battling the virus but they chose not to, and the cost of that choice mounts higher every day."

"I believe it is no exaggeration to say that if this virus had emerged in a place like Taiwan or the United States, it might have been snuffed out easily," he added. "The issue is not which country is the source. The issue is how that country responds."

The Trump administration has been widely criticized for its inability to contain the virus. The U.S. quickly became the epicenter of the pandemic, and thus far has recorded more than 5.1 million cases and more than 164,000 deaths—the worst tolls of any nation.

Taiwan, China, US, Alex Azar, Zhao Lijian
Health Secretary Alex Azar and former Taiwanese Vice President Chen Chien-jen wave as they attend a speech at the public health college of the National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan on August 11, 2020. PEI CHEN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/Getty