In less than two weeks before President Donald Trump leaves the White House, Asia’s most pro-Trump democracy has received what it felt was a parting gift, and then some.
In a move seen as further boosting Taiwan’s international status, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday lifted restrictions on U.S. official interactions with the self-ruled island.
Then, on Wednesday, the Trump administration released a previously secret document detailing its aim to ensure U.S. maritime primacy in Asia and plan to help defend Taiwan. While it did not commit the U.S. military to intervene in the event of an invasion by Beijing, the 2018 paper affirmed Taiwan’s partnership with the world’s most powerful country.
The actions amounted to a poke in the eye to Beijing, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has sought to prevent foreign governments, companies and people from doing anything that could elevate the democracy’s stature.
Trump has been strengthening U.S. support to Taiwan as part of his hard-line policy on Beijing. After his election in 2016, President-elect Trump took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the first contact between a Taiwan leader and an incumbent or incoming U.S. president in nearly four decades.
The Trump team has also increased arms sales to Taiwan and official dealings between the two governments. In 2020, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Undersecretary of State Keith Krach visited Taiwan, the highest-level U.S. officials to make business trips to the island since Washington cut formal diplomatic relations with Taipei in 1979.
The support for Taipei has made Trump a popular figure among young Taiwanese, who are concerned about the growing power and influence of its Chinese neighbor. A YouGov survey conducted ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election suggested that Taiwan was the only place among eight Asia-Pacific regions where people favored Trump over President-elect Joe Biden.
Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Washington, called Jan. 10 a “huge day” after Pompeo removed what he said was the U.S.’ “self-imposed” restrictions to “appease” Beijing. A day later, Pete Hoekstra, the Trump-appointed ambassador to the Netherlands, hosted a Taiwanese diplomat for the first time at the American embassy in The Hague. Previously, interactions between Washington and Taipei took place at unofficial venues. “Made some history today,” Hoekstra tweeted.
The Trump administration also scheduled a visit to Taipei this week by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, although the trip was canceled as the State Department made a last-minute decision to scrap all overseas travel before Biden’s administration takes over.
The restrictions preventing U.S. officials from officially meeting their Taiwanese counterparts were put in place at a time when Washington was cozying up to Beijing to form a united front against the threats from the former Soviet Union.
Alexander Huang, a international relations professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan and a former consultant at Taipei’s de facto embassy in the U.S., said the rules now look “outdated” given the intensifying strategic competition between the U.S. and China.
He said some of the restrictions had already been weakened by the U.S. Congress by recent legislation, including a travel act that encourages U.S. officials to visit Taiwan.
The last-minute announcement of the policy change could complicate the challenges confronting the new Biden administration.
Beijing has condemned the increased exchanges between Washington and Taipei. Vowing to retaliate against acts of “Taiwan-U.S. collusion,” a Chinese spokeswoman on Monday warned that Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party would bring “disasters” to the people by leaning on Washington.
China’s foreign ministry also blasted Washington for the decision, urging the U.S. government to stop official exchanges and military ties with Taiwan.
But it would be difficult for Biden to reverse the decision without looking soft on China, Huang said.
Following Pompeo’s announcement, a member of Biden’s transition team told the Central News Agency in Taipei that the president-elect would support “a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan.”
Drew Thompson, a former U.S. defense official who is now a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, said Beijing’s increased aggression against Taiwan was bound to put Biden in a quagmire regardless of the Trump administration’s last-minute announcement.
Beijing has in recent years stepped up efforts to isolate Taiwan. Chinese authorities have told international companies to follow Beijing’s protocol in referring to Taiwan and banned mainland celebrities from attending prominent film awards on the island. Beijing has also poached Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, in an attempt to weaken its international recognition.
“I don’t think the Trump administration has necessarily made it any worse for the Biden administration,” Thompson said. “Biden’s challenge has little to do with Trump; it has more to do with Xi Jinping and the way he runs China.”
Alan Wong contributed reporting.
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