The U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands sent a jubilant tweet on Monday, claiming to have “made some history today.” He had welcomed Taiwan’s de facto ambassador into the U.S. Embassy for a meeting.
For the past four decades, it’s been generally off-limits for U.S. ambassadors to invite Taiwanese officials into embassies. Ever since the United States switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979, America’s relations with the government in Taiwan have been unofficial. To keep it that way, a complex and ever-changing set of rules has guided how executive branch officials should deal with the Taiwanese.
But on Jan. 9, with less than two weeks left in President Trump’s term, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was throwing out the rule book. U.S. relations with Taiwan would remain unofficial, he said, but wouldn’t be shackled by “self-imposed restrictions.”
“Executive branch agencies should consider all ‘contact guidelines’ regarding relations with Taiwan previously issued by the Department of State…to be null and void,” he said in a statement. “The United States government took these actions unilaterally, in an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing. No more.”
Analysts see the policy reversal as the latest in a series of steps taken this year by the Trump administration, with Pompeo in the lead, to lock in a more hawkish, confrontational stance against China. Pompeo and others have declared that China constitutes America’s biggest threat.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft was scheduled to travel to Taiwan this week, marking a first since formal U.S.-Taiwan relations ended. An end-of-term travel ban at the State Department prevented the trip, but she spoke with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen by phone and asserted that the U.S. would always stand with Taiwan.
Beijing considers self-ruled Taiwan a part of China, and has vowed to unify it politically with the mainland — by force, if necessary. Taiwan has been central to China-U.S. relations from the start.
“So the big question you have to ask is: Why is Pompeo doing this now? They could have done it a year ago and then managed the fallout if they felt that this was so important,” says Evan Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown University who was senior Asia director at the National Security Council during the Obama administration.
“I think the answer is that this is meant to be a trap,” he says.
In other words, if President-elect Joe Biden maintains the policy shift, his relationship with China may be rougher. If he reinstates the guidelines for dealing with Taiwan, he “creates a political vulnerability that he’s being soft on China,” Medeiros says.
On both sides of the political aisle in the U.S., the appetite for firmer policies against China seems to have increased over the past few years. Most China-related legislation that has come up for a vote in Congress recently has passed with strong bipartisan support, if not unanimity.
The Republican Party has amped up its tough-on-China policy rhetoric. Analysts think Biden will come under attack from the right if he rolls back any of Trump’s China moves, from steep trade tariffs and the closure of China’s consulate in Houston this summer to scrapping the rules on interactions with Taiwan.
But Richard Bush, a Taiwan expert with the Brookings Institution, says recent events in the United States may have changed the equation.
“We’re in a situation where the head of the Republican Party has incited violence against his own government, we’re in a Republican Party that could not hold on to two Senate seats in Georgia,” he says.
If the Biden administration does a good job of consulting with Democratic lawmakers, in this case on Taiwan policy, “the Republican attacks could probably be deflected,” he says.
It’s unclear how much of Trump’s China policy Biden will change. The first step will likely be a time-consuming policy review.
But even if the Biden team moves swiftly to put the U.S.-China relationship back on a less antagonistic track, Beijing will be wary after the dramatic changes of the past four years.
Susan Thornton, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia and the Pacific before retiring from the State Department in 2018, thinks many aspects of Trump’s China policy are reversible. But, she says, the Chinese leadership’s view of things may have changed as American rhetoric hardened.
“Even if they think that it’s mostly about four years under Trump, their assessment of the situation in U.S.-China relations has to have moved considerably,” she says. “They would like to stabilize things, but they probably have a pretty jaundiced view of where the U.S. wants to take all of this, even under Biden.”
For now, Beijing is in wait-and-see mode. The foreign ministry responded to Pompeo’s latest move by calling on the United States to abide by the promises it made when relations were established in 1979 and keep its contacts with Taiwan informal.
“They’re obviously waiting Trump out,” says Thornton.
But she adds: “Even if Biden makes an attempt to work on some projects with China in a cooperative way, I think that they will not forget what’s happened.”