The Trump administration’s policy toward Taiwan is ending much as it started — by attempting to fundamentally alter the status quo.
The United States on Friday lifted decades-old restrictions on contacts between U.S. officials and their Taiwanese counterparts, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, just days before President-elect Joe Biden is due to take office.
The move in the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency was the latest in a series of shifts by the White House that have more tightly bound Washington’s ties with Taipei amid an increasingly acrimonious relationship with Beijing.
As president-elect in December 2016, Trump took the rare step of receiving a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. The call, the first contact between a leader of Taiwan and an incumbent or incoming U.S. president in nearly four decades, angered China and set the stage for a rapid deterioration of Sino-U.S. ties under Trump.
In his statement Friday, Pompeo called Taiwan “a vibrant democracy and reliable partner” of the U.S., but said that for several decades the State Department had created “complex internal restrictions” on the interactions between U.S. diplomats, servicemembers and other officials with their Taiwanese counterparts.
“The United States government took these actions unilaterally, in an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing,” Pompeo said in a statement. “Today I am announcing that I am lifting all of these self-imposed restrictions.”
Executive branch agencies, he added, should consider all “contact guidelines” for relations with Taiwan previously issued by the State Department “to be null and void.”
Taiwan’s de facto mission to the United States said in a statement that the actions “reflect the strength and depth” of the two countries’ relations.
The mission’s top representative also had strong words for the move.
“Decades of discrimination, removed. A huge day in our bilateral relationship. I will cherish every opportunity,” tweeted Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador in Washington.
The Trump administration has announced a tranche of economic and weapons deals with Taiwan, including the sales of advanced drones and powerful missile systems designed to deter any attempt at invading the island. It has also sent top officials to the island in the highest-level U.S. visits since it switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979.
Later this week, Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is scheduled to visit Taiwan for meetings with senior leaders there, prompting China to warn on Friday that the U.S. would “pay a heavy price for its erroneous actions.”
The moves have come as the White House tangles with China over a variety of issues, from trade to technology to security.
Pompeo has been among Trump’s top hawks on the ruling Chinese Communist Party, saying in a scathing speech last July that 50 years of engagement with Beijing has not worked and that a different and tougher approach is needed.
“The free world must triumph over this new tyranny,” he said in the speech. “The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it. We must not return to it.”
The latest move will deepen China’s anger. Beijing views Taiwan as an inherent part of its territory and sees it as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary. It considers the island nation the most sensitive issue with the U.S.
Washington considers the self-ruled island a key partner and crucial line of defense as the Chinese military continues to punch further into the Western Pacific, threatening U.S. primacy in the waters and potentially putting Japan at risk.
Although it no longer formally recognizes Taiwan, the United States is required by law to provide Taipei with the means to defend itself, according to the Taiwan Relations Act.
Japan, too, views the island nation as a bulwark against growing Chinese military assertiveness. Last month state minister for defense Yasuhide Nakayama — the country’s No. 2 defense official — urged Biden in an interview to “be strong” in supporting Taiwan in the face of an aggressive China, calling the island’s safety a “red line.”
The decision to relax the rules just days before the Jan. 20 inauguration of Biden, a Democrat, could be seen as an attempt by the Republican administration to sow chaos before it’s departure.
“If the Trump administration thought this was in the US national interest, why didn’t they do it four years ago?” Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, tweeted Friday.
Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official responsible for managing relations with China, said that Beijing should not be the deciding factor in determining interests and achieving U.S. objectives.
“Arbitrary restrictions on engagement harm U.S. interests and belittle our valued Taiwan friends, at no gain to either, and potential harm to both,” he wrote on Twitter.
Thompson called removing the restrictions “the right approach,” but said the timing was not right.
“A blanket statement such as this, abrogating all of the guidance in place for years, without articulating what framework will replace it simply amplifies perceived chaos in DC,” he added.
Asked about the rescinding of the rules, an official with Biden’s transition team told The Financial Times that once Biden was in office he would continue to support “a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan.”
U.S. officials reportedly said that Friday’s move had been the result of a lengthy review, the FT said, and Pompeo appeared to say in his statement that the move was a natural evolution of Washington’s relations with Taipei.
“The United States government maintains relationships with unofficial partners around the world, and Taiwan is no exception,” Pompeo said. “Our two democracies share common values of individual freedom, the rule of law, and a respect for human dignity. Today’s statement recognizes that the U.S.-Taiwan relationship need not, and should not, be shackled by self-imposed restrictions of our permanent bureaucracy.”
Daniel Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, said that while he expected China to react with vitriol, the removal of the regulations was necessary.
“China will be angry. Because it is angry about everything that we do with Taiwan. They want to force it to be like Hong Kong,” he said, referring to Beijing’s draconian crackdown on the city. “We want to avoid that outcome at all costs.”
Blumenthal also said following through on Pompeo’s move would strengthen the Biden administration.
“They will be dealing with China from a position of strength. And their global agenda requires Taiwan’s cooperation, on defense, on tech, on climate change,” he said. “This just eases doing diplomacy with Taiwan.”
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