China is vowing to counter a decision by the United States to lift self-imposed restrictions on contacts between U.S. diplomatic officials and their Taiwanese counterparts, while maintaining the unofficial relationship between the two democracies.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to the self-ruled island as “a vibrant democracy and reliable partner of the United States” in a statement Saturday announcing the eased restrictions.
“The United States government maintains relationships with unofficial partners around the world, and Taiwan is no exception,” Pompeo said as he declared that all previous “contact guidelines” issued by the State Department involving Taiwan to be “null and void.”
The announcement comes after the Taiwan Assurance Act, requiring the State Department to reassess such restrictions on U.S. relations with Taiwan, became law in December 2020.
Taiwan and China have been separately ruled since the 1949 end of China’s civil war, when Chaing Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces were driven off the mainland by Mao Zedong’s Communist forces and settled on the island. China still claims sovereignty over Taiwan and has not ruled out the use of force to unite the two sides.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing Monday that China will allow no interference in its reunification efforts with Taiwan, and that any actions in that direction would be met with firm countermeasures, although he did not spell out any specifics.
For years, most high-ranking U.S. military officials and senior American officials were banned from traveling to Taiwan to avoid upsetting Beijing. Top Taiwanese officials, including Taiwan’s president, vice president, and ministers of foreign affairs and of defense, have been prevented from coming to Washington.
“Decades of discrimination, removed. A huge day in our bilateral relationship. I will cherish every opportunity,” said Taiwan’s envoy to the U.S. Hsiao Bi-khim in a tweet.
The Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, Taiwan’s representative office in the U.S., said in a statement that the State Department’s actions to further bilateral engagements “reflect the strength and depth of our relationship.”
“We are grateful to the State Department, as well as members of Congress from both parties for passing the Taiwan Assurance Act, which had also encouraged this review,” the office said.
Some analysts said it's the right move but question the timing.
"Taiwan is an important unofficial partner, a major economic and security partner, making robust engagement a vital U.S. national interest. Arbitrary restrictions on engagement harm U.S. interests and belittle our Taiwan friends, at no gain to either, and potential harm to both," said Drew Thompson, a former U.S. defense official and now a senior research fellow at National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
Thompson added, however, "a blanket statement such as this, abrogating all of the guidance in place for years, without replacing it with a new framework simply reflects the chaos we are currently seeing in Washington. It is a good thing badly done, four years too late, that can be reversed with little effort in a few weeks. "
Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told VOA Saturday “if these restrictions hampered the U.S. from promoting the relationship in a way that serves U.S. national interests, the Trump administration should have done this much earlier. It is against our traditions to make policy decisions in the waning days of an administration.”
Others said the latest move will force Taiwan policy higher up on the agenda of the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.
Euan Graham, a senior fellow from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, referred in a tweet to "the prim correctness around Taiwan nomenclature, all the do’s and don’ts (and they were mostly don’ts),” adding, “Always in fear of a tongue lashing from the PRC representative at Asian security conferences. I would happily bid goodbye to all that."
“These changes are long overdue, and the Trump administration ideally would have made them sooner. Beijing seeks to coerce, isolate, and eventually control Taiwan. The United States must counter these efforts by Beijing, and more robust U.S. bilateral interactions with Taiwan are an important part of that," said Bradley Bowman who is a senior director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“The incoming Biden administration should also examine self-imposed limitations related to U.S. military training and exercises with Taiwan,” Bowman said.
Pompeo’s Saturday statement follows a previous announcement that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft will visit Taiwan from January 13 to 15.
The announcement was met with strong opposition from Beijing. Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, accused the U.S. of violating Beijing’s one-China “principle” and warned that the U.S. will pay a "heavy price for its wrongdoings."
The U.S. says its long-held One China policy is "distinct" from Beijing’s One China principle, under which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) asserts sovereignty over Taiwan. The U.S. has never accepted CCP’s sovereignty claim over Taiwan and has refrained from taking a position on sovereignty over Taiwan.