U.S. moves to increase official contacts with Taiwan

Foreign Affairs

While the dramatic move was of a piece with earlier diplomatic bombs thrown at China by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, there are indications the change was in the works for some time.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

On January 9, the U.S. took a major step to strengthen its official contacts with Taiwan, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that all “contact guidelines” regulating when and how American officials could interact with Taiwanese counterparts were now “null and void.” However, Pompeo stopped short of calling for official relations with Taiwan, and continued to refer to the island democracy as an “unofficial partner.”

  • As with every Pompeo statement about China, it was highly ideological: Carefully crafted diplomatic policies of prior administrations were dismissed as attempts to “appease the Communist regime in Beijing,” and the new action, Pompeo boasted, would break the shackles of “self-imposed restrictions of our permanent bureaucracy.” 
  • Beijing responded predictably, in a Foreign Ministry press briefing (English, Chinese): “We advise Mr. Pompeo and his likes to recognize the historical trend, stop manipulating Taiwan-related issues, stop retrogressive acts and stop going further down the wrong and dangerous path, otherwise they will be harshly punished by history.”

Why this move now?

The announcement raised many eyebrows at first, due to the extraordinarily late announcement of the change — just 11 days from the transfer of power to the Biden administration — plus Pompeo’s history of throwing diplomatic bombs at China. 

However, it appears this move was in the works for some time, and it follows a trend of tightening U.S.-Taiwan ties. 

Taiwan officials welcomed the change in policy, with foreign minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮 Wú Zhāoxiè) and representative to Washington Bi-khim Hsiao (蕭美琴 Xiāo Měiqín) both tweeting their support. 

What happens next?

President-elect Joe Biden will probably keep the new policies, and avoid further dramatic changes for the time being. A transition official told the FT that Biden “was committed to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which has defined relations with the country, and to the one-China policy.”

  • “Although important, these rules were not absolutely necessary…in order to comply with the One China Policy or the Taiwan Relations Act,” legal scholar Julian Ku said, so Biden officials don’t “have to reverse this in order to claim the Biden Admin is adhering to the One China policy.”
  • Beijing may be cautious for the time being, too: The SCMP cites several Chinese government advisers who urge Beijing to wait and see what Biden does once he takes office. 

The larger trend: As Taiwan increases its contacts with the U.S., Taiwanese are increasingly souring on ties with mainland China, and economic ties may also be weakening. The Financial Times reports: “Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese enterprises are bidding farewell to China because of rising costs and trade tensions between Washington and Beijing, marking a dramatic shift for Taiwan’s corporate landscape with significant implications for global manufacturing.”