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US State Department Ends Restrictions on Contacts with Taiwan Officials


FILE - The State Department Building is pictured in Washington, Jan. 26, 2017.
FILE - The State Department Building is pictured in Washington, Jan. 26, 2017.

The United States is lifting self-imposed restrictions on contacts between U.S. officials and their Taiwanese counterparts, while maintaining the unofficial relationship between the two democracies.

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.

The latest move is welcomed by Taiwan but likely to anger China.

In a statement Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “for several decades the State Department has created complex internal restrictions to regulate our diplomats, servicemembers, and other officials’ interactions with their Taiwanese counterparts.”

Referring to Taiwan as a “reliable” and “unofficial” partner, Pompeo added U.S. executive branch agencies should consider “contact guidelines” regarding relations with Taiwan previously issued by the State Department to be “null and void.”

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.

Taiwan and China have been separately ruled since the 1949 end of China’s civil war. China still claims sovereignty over Taiwan and has not ruled out the use of force to unite the two sides.

“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 US 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.