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US Encourages Closer Ties with Taiwan Without Changing 'One China' Policy

FILE - Flags of Taiwan and US in place for a meeting between US and Taiwan legislators in Taipei, Taiwan March 27, 2018.

The State Department's new guidance encouraging diplomatic outreach to Taiwan is seen by some China analysts as a way to encourage and promote closer ties without fundamentally changing Washington's overall stance on China's territorial claims to the island.

On Friday, the State Department announced new measures to "encourage U.S. government engagement with Taiwan that reflects our deepening unofficial relationship."

"Taiwan is a vibrant democracy and a force for good in the world," said State Department spokesperson Ned Price in a tweet announcing new guidelines on interacting with Taiwan.

U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Todd Chapman tweeted "Taiwan is a prominent democracy, a global technology leader and a trusted business partner" after he had met with Taiwan's envoy to Brazil Chang Tsung-Che.

U.S. political and economic ties to Taiwan go back decades, but analysts see renewed interest in shoring up relations with the island democracy at a time of increasing tensions with China.

"I view the State Department tweets as part of the Biden administration's policy of showing rock-solid support for Taiwan," said Bonnie Glaser, who will soon join the German Marshall Fund as its director of the Asia Program.

Gerrit van der Wees, an adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, said he sees this as part of "an all-of-government approach" to highlight and make visible that the United States encourages closer contact with Taiwan at all levels.

"A free and democratic Taiwan being threatened by an aggressive and belligerent China has made it necessary that the U.S. (and other allies) are able to communicate with the freely elected government in Taiwan at higher levels than was formally possible under the present construct," van der Wees said.

U.S.-China-Taiwan ties

For years, Washington has maintained its "one China policy" to guide its relations with Taiwan. This is different from Beijing's "one China principle." The United States "acknowledged" but has never endorsed the Chinese Communist Party's claim of sovereignty over Taiwan.

Washington has long maintained that differences between China and Taiwan should be settled peacefully and in accordance with the will of the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

But concern over Taiwan is growing, especially following Beijing's crackdown on pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong. The new measures could lead American officials to become more active on social media in engaging with their Taiwanese counterparts.

FILE - A supporter of pro-democracy activists holds a sign outside West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts where others queue up for a court hearing over charges related to national security, in Hong Kong, China, March 1, 2021.
FILE - A supporter of pro-democracy activists holds a sign outside West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts where others queue up for a court hearing over charges related to national security, in Hong Kong, China, March 1, 2021.

Benjamin Friedman, the policy director at Defense Priorities, a Washington-based think tank, said the new measures are a "deliberate attempt to signal or show the Chinese that their efforts to intimidate Taiwan will just lead to greater U.S. ties."

"This is something that actually began at the tail end of the Trump administration with (former Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo (lifting the restrictions), and had somewhat surprisingly continued under the Biden administration — this opening up slightly of low-level or at least not top-level contacts between U.S. diplomats and Taiwanese Foreign (Ministry) officials," Friedman said.

The new Taiwan guidelines come as the U.S. Congress introduces major legislation to counter China's expanding global influence. The proposed bipartisan Strategic Competition Act of 2021 calls for no restrictions on U.S. officials' interactions with their Taiwanese counterparts.

"The Department of State and other United States Government agencies shall engage with the democratically elected government of Taiwan on the same basis, and using the same nomenclature and protocol, as the United States Government engages with other foreign governments," it said, adding the proposed legislation shall not be interpreted as "entailing restoration of diplomatic relations" with Taiwan.

Chinese reaction

In Beijing, officials pushed back, saying the measures interfere in China's domestic affairs.

"The relevant U.S. lawmakers should look at China and bilateral relations in an objective and rational light, abide by the one China principle and the three China-U.S. joint communiqués, reject Cold War and zero-sum mentality, stop pushing negative bills that interfere in China's domestic affairs and harm Chinese interests," said Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson from China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In December, the Taiwan Assurance Act that was enacted as a U.S. public law required the State Department to reassess self-imposed restrictions on U.S. relations with Taiwan.

In January, Pompeo announced an end to decades-long and self-imposed restrictions on the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. The policy change said U.S. officials' contacts with their Taiwanese counterparts are to be handled by American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), a nonprofit organization responsible for implementing U.S. policy toward Taiwan under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

Last week's new guidelines reaffirmed the State Department's supervision over senior U.S. officials' travel to Taiwan, with AIT providing a supporting role.