Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, has lifted longstanding restrictions that limit US diplomatic relations with Taiwan, in a move that is likely to incense China days before the Biden administration takes power.
Washington cut ties with Taiwan in 1979 in favour of those with China, which sees the self-governing and democratic island as its own territory. While successive US administrations have loosened diplomatic restrictions and sold weapons to the island, Mr Pompeo’s action goes further than any in the past.
“Today I am announcing that I am lifting all of these self-imposed restrictions,” Mr Pompeo said in a statement on Saturday. He added that government agencies should consider all such “contact guidelines” previously issued by the Department of State to be “null and void”.
While the US has no official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, contacts between the two are governed by an unpublished set of codes that limit where officials can meet and even how correspondence is conducted.
“The United States government took these actions unilaterally, in an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing,” Mr Pompeo added. “No more.”
Mr Pompeo, who is due to visit Europe next week to hammer home his concerns over China, has led the Trump administration’s hawkish turn against Beijing, demanding allies side with the US and declaring an end to “blind engagement” with the Asian power.
China did not immediately comment on the move. But it has condemned this week’s announcement that Kelly Craft, US ambassador to the UN, would visit Taiwan next week as “crazy provocation”. It suggested the US was playing with fire.
The twin moves appeared to mark a victory for Taiwan, which has spent months lobbying for closer ties. Taiwan’s diplomatic office in Washington said the state department’s action reflected “the strength and depth” of the Taiwan-US relationship and that it looked forward to “broadening” the partnership in the months and years ahead.
Elbridge Colby, one of the architects of the Trump administration’s tougher stance against China, said the move freed the relationship from “anachronistic bureaucratic structures” and argued it would enable the pair to work “more effectively” in defence. Both the Trump and Obama administrations sold large weapons packages to the island.
But Evan Medeiros, a former Obama official who worked on US-China relations, described the decision as a “public relations stunt of the first order” that would inflame Beijing and harm relations with Taiwan.
“It does nothing two weeks before inauguration but politicise the Taiwan issue — to Taiwan’s detriment,” he said. “If Pompeo feels so strongly why didn’t he do this a year ago and stay to manage the fallout?”
Mr Medeiros added that Beijing would probably wait to see what the incoming Biden administration did before taking any retaliatory move.
Bonnie Glaser, Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, described the policy change as “a precedent-setting decision” that an outgoing administration should not take during its final days in office.
“Taking it now seems intended to box in the Biden team,” she said.
Critics have accused the Trump administration of attempting to hamper the Biden team’s room for manoeuvre. The US last month broke with convention by recognising Western Sahara and is reportedly considering designating Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism and Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist organisation, a move some say would complicate efforts to resolve the conflict.
David Stilwell, top Asia official at the state department, told the Financial Times the Taiwan decision was the result of a lengthy review of the relationship. He denied the decision was rushed out in the waning days of the administration. “It’s been busy. We’ve had a lot to do,” he said.
“We have been trying to rectify the overall US-China relationship and this is one more step in that direction,” he added. He urged the Biden administration, which has vowed to take a tougher line on China than previous Democratic administrations, to maintain the new policy.
A Biden transition official said the president-elect had made it clear on the campaign trail that he was committed to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which has defined relations with the country, and to the one-China policy.
“Once in office, he will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan,” the official said.
“He has long said that American support for Taiwan must remain strong, principled, and bipartisan, and he plans to work to ensure that.”