By Yimou Lee
TAIPEI (Reuters) - U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar attacked China's response to the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday and said that if such an outbreak had emerged in Taiwan or the United States it could have been "snuffed out easily".
The Trump administration has repeatedly criticised Beijing for trying to cover up the virus outbreak, first identified in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, and prevaricating on information sharing. China angrily denies the accusations.
"The Chinese Communist Party had the chance to warn the world and work with the world on battling the virus. But they chose not to, and the costs of that choice mount higher every day," Azar said in Taipei, capital of self-ruled Taiwan, an island China claims as its own.
As the virus emerged, China did not live up to its "binding" international obligations in a betrayal of the cooperative spirit needed for global health, he added, wearing a face mask as he has done for all his public events in Taiwan.
"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: rapidly reported to public health authorities, who would have shared what they knew with health professionals and with the general public," Azar said.
"Instead, Beijing appears to have resisted information sharing, muzzling doctors who spoke out and hobbling the world's ability to respond."
The United States has the highest number of coronavirus infections and deaths in the world and President Donald Trump has come under scathing attack from critics at home for not taking what he calls the "China virus" seriously enough.
Taiwan has been praised by health experts for its early and effective steps to control the outbreak, with only 480 infections, including seven deaths.
Azar arrived in Taiwan on Sunday as the highest-level U.S. official to visit in four decades, a trip condemned by China.
China considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has vowed to bring it under its rule, by force if necessary.
Chinese fighter jets on Monday briefly crossed the median line of the sensitive Taiwan Strait, and were tracked by Taiwanese anti-aircraft missiles, part of what Taipei sees as a pattern of harassment by Beijing.
Washington broke off official ties with Taipei in 1979 in favour of Beijing but is still Taiwan's biggest arms supplier. The Trump administration has made strengthening its support for the democratic island a priority as relations with China sour over issues including human rights, the pandemic, Hong Kong and trade.
Azar said the world should recognise Taiwan's health accomplishments and not try to push it out, pointing to Taiwan's exclusion from the World Health Organization due to Chinese objections.
"This behaviour is in keeping with Beijing's approach to WHO and other international organisations. The influence of the PRC (People's Republic of China) far outweighs its investment in this public health institution - and it uses influence not to advance public health objectives, but its own narrow political interests."
Both China and the WHO say Taiwan has been provided with the help it needs during the pandemic, which Taiwan disputes.
(Reporting by Yimou Lee; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Nick Macfie)