For decades, America’s diplomatic dealings with Taiwan were governed by intricate and arcane rules designed to support a key Asian partner without provoking Beijing — and avoid war in the Taiwan Strait. Details of the U.S. strategy toward China, meanwhile, were shrouded in secrecy.
This week, those rules went out the window.
With days left in office, the Trump administration has cast aside long-standing policies toward China and Taiwan, both raising expectations and setting new constraints, for how the Biden administration will deal with its largest geopolitical competitor.
On Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo abruptly lifted U.S. government rules prohibiting interactions between American and Taiwanese diplomats, a move that amounted to a symbolic but significant upgrade in the U.S. relationship with the democratic island, which China claims as its territory.
Within days, U.S. diplomats from The Hague to Washington were publicizing meetings with their Taiwanese counterparts, incensing Beijing, while Kelly Craft, the ambassador to the United Nations, prepared to travel to Taipei as the third high-profile U.S. official to visit in just eight months.
Craft’s trip was scuttled last-minute as part of a State Department-wide travel freeze, but Trump officials aimed another shot at China, and the incoming Biden administration. Late Tuesday, national security adviser Robert O’Brien released the full text — with a few sections redacted — of the U.S. Asia strategy, a secret ten-page document that highlighted the expansion of China’s “illiberal spheres of influence” as the No. 1 challenge that must be countered, ahead of North Korea.
By declassifying the document two decades ahead of schedule, O’Brien said he hoped “to communicate to American people and to our allies in Asia the enduring commitment of the United States to keeping the Indo-Pacific region free and open long into the future.”
Critics say the moves, timed shortly before the handover, were designed to nettle Beijing one last time and force the Biden administration to make difficult, and potentially politically costly, decisions. They also came as Pompeo in recent days designated Cuba and the Iran-backed Houthi group in Yemen as sponsors of terrorism.
“If the new administration explicitly embraces the change, they get volatility and a confrontational relationship with China, which is what the Trump team and Pompeo wanted,” said Evan Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown University and former senior director for Asia on President Obama’s National Security Council. “If they reject it, they get a political problem and a problem with Taiwan. The whole issue of contacts will become a new metric in the U.S.-China-Taiwan relationship.”
For four years, the Trump administration has made confronting China a key pillar of its foreign policy. As part of that effort, particularly in the past year, Pompeo and senior officials have spoken vigorously in defense of Taiwan, the most sensitive issue in U.S.-China relations.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has demanded that Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen acknowledge the basic tenet that Taiwan and China are part of “one China.” The Chinese government objects strenuously to diplomatic exchanges and official visits that cast Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy, as a sovereign state.
The Taipei government was expelled from the United Nations in 1971, when many countries including the United States switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing, and Taipei today cannot participate in some U.N. functions, such as the World Health Organization’s discussions on the coronavirus pandemic, because of Chinese objections.
Pompeo’s decision has revived debate in Washington and Taipei about whether and how the United States should aid Taiwan. Successive U.S. administrations routinely weigh questions both concrete and symbolic about Taiwan, including how to stage visits with Taiwanese officials and which advanced American weapons or fighter jets the island should be allowed to procure.
As relations with Beijing soured sharply last year, the Trump administration lavished Taiwan with a series of high-profile official visits, while Pompeo’s weekend declaration removed another symbolic barrier to Taiwan’s claims of being recognized on the international stage.
Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, applauded Pompeo’s move as a “positive legacy piece” at the end of an administration and said it could lead the Biden administration into a more sweeping rethink of U.S. policy toward Taiwan.
Others criticized Pompeo for political grandstanding. Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister who now heads the Asia Society Policy Institute, said the Trump officials could have spent more energy focusing on concrete steps to aid Taiwan, like pushing for its readmission into the WHO.
“A formal declaration of this type does nothing materially to increase Taiwan’s international political space or enhance the security interests of the Taiwanese people, it arguably creates a greater sense of crisis in the Taiwan Strait,” said Rudd. “If Pompeo was serious about this, why not do this one or two years ago? This is an exercise in Republican primary politics.”
Taiwanese officials, particularly from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which traditionally leaned toward declaring formal independence from China, have sought relaxation of the State Department rules governing contacts for more than a decade. Those appeals were significantly stepped up the last year or so, said two people with knowledge of the Tsai government’s thinking.
Taiwanese officials reveled in Pompeo’s new decree. “Decades of discrimination, removed,” said the Taiwanese envoy in Washington, Bikhim Hsiao, on Twitter. “A huge day in our bilateral relationship. I will cherish every opportunity.”
The Taiwanese president, who is typically more cautious, did not comment on the shift.
In China, where experts and state media have been bracing for an 11th hour surprise from Trump officials, the foreign ministry promised “harsh punishment” for Pompeo breaking with decades of diplomatic tradition. Speculation has ramped up on social media this week that Pompeo could personally visit Taiwan as a final act.
On Monday, the Communist Party-controlled Global Times newspaper addressed the rumors in an editorial and warned that Chinese fighter jets would immediately be dispatched over Taiwan in the event Pompeo arrived. “If the U.S. and the island of Taiwan dare to overreact, war will be sparked,” the newspaper warned.
Xiong Lili, the dean of international relations at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, said the lifting of diplomatic restrictions was a “final madness” that, if continued by Biden, would break the fragile balance of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations.
“It would mean that high-level political and military exchanges between the US and Taiwan are becoming normalized,” he said. “The consequences will be catastrophic.”
China policy experts say Pompeo’s policy change, prudent or not, will revive fundamental questions about the U.S.-China relationship — a necessity given increased Chinese competition with the United States, Beijing’s expanding influence on the global stage and the Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly authoritarian actions at home and abroad.
“U.S.-Taiwan relations had almost a Kabuki theater element to it – so stylized and carefully managed,” said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University. “There’s an intense sensitivity not just to the substance of those meetings but the optics. By having this shift, it does raise a lot of questions about how those interactions will be structured going forward.”