• BLOOMBERG, AFP-JIJI

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The U.S. State Department restored rules governing officials’ contacts with Taiwan that were lifted in the Trump administration’s final days, but said the new version eased unneeded restrictions as the U.S. looks to counter increasing encroachment by China on the island’s sovereignty.

The new guidance “underscores Taiwan is a vibrant democracy and an important security and economic partner that is also a force for good in the international community,” spokesman Ned Price said Friday. He said the revised rules “liberalize contacts with Taiwan, consistent with our unofficial relations.”

The move is designed to help restore some semblance of order to ties between the U.S. and Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory but which has governed itself since 1949. With just days to go in President Donald Trump’s term, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo eliminated the existing guidelines entirely, declaring them “null and void.”

That decision created confusion as much as anything else, leaving officials unsure what was allowed. For decades, contacts between the U.S. and Taiwan were governed by rules of protocol that were part of a delicate dance aimed at avoiding antagonism with China while also allying the U.S. with Taiwan’s government.

In effect, Friday’s move restores those limits while also demonstrating new support for an important ally.

The State Department didn’t detail ways in which the guidelines will be loosened. But two people familiar with the move said that U.S. officials would be allowed to host Taiwanese officials at U.S. federal buildings and meet Taiwanese counterparts at its government offices. They’ll also be able to go to events at the Twin Oaks estate in Washington that was the Taiwan ambassador’s residence before the U.S. switched diplomatic recognition to China in 1979.

In a decision that will anger Republican lawmakers, however, the Biden administration is restoring limits that prevent Taiwan from displaying its flag at such meetings.

Friday’s announcement comes as officials in the Biden administration worry that China’s ruling Communist Party will turn its focus more intently on Taiwan after largely eliminating Hong Kong’s independence movement over the last two years. In a recent Senate hearing, Adm. John Aquilino, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said the “most dangerous concern” is the potential use of military force against Taiwan.

The latest move comes after U.S.-China relations fell to their lowest in years as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the Trump administration to ratchet up criticism of Beijing, overwhelming any goodwill created by the agreement of an initial trade accord in early 2020.

Beijing’s increasingly tight grip over Hong Kong, its persecution of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and its expansion of outposts in the South China Sea have prompted bipartisan criticism in the U.S. The recent global shortage of semiconductor chips has only served to heighten awareness of U.S. dependence on companies such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.

“Our restrictions on diplomacy with Taiwan are pointless, and were never agreed with Beijing,” said Christian Whiton, a former State Department official in the Trump and George W. Bush administrations. “They are self-imposed. We have had robust engagement with Iran and North Korea, and we don’t have formal diplomatic relations with them. Why treat a democratic ally worse?”

Under Trump, the U.S. sent high-level officials to Taiwan, but it was Biden who broke past precedent by inviting Taiwan’s representative in the U.S., Hsiao Bi-khim, to his inauguration in January. The U.S. has also proceeded with numerous defense sales to Taiwan.

Taiwan’s mission in Washington — officially called the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States,” rather than an embassy — welcomed the new guidelines, saying they reflected a bipartisan consensus for closer relations.

“Taiwan and the U.S. share a deep and abiding partnership based on our common values and joint interests,” it said, pointing to cooperation on global health, space, trade and democracy promotion.

Earlier Friday, the Taipei Times quoted Foreign Minister Joseph Wu as saying his government expected significant changes to the guidelines, which he said were constantly being reviewed.

“Without direct rules, the department would not know what to do,” the Taipei Times cited Wu as saying, in reference to the State Department.

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