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The US Rescinded Its Taiwan Guidelines. What Does That Actually Mean?

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The US Rescinded Its Taiwan Guidelines. What Does That Actually Mean?

A look at the history of the guidelines, and the timing and implications of the move to end them.

The US Rescinded Its Taiwan Guidelines. What Does That Actually Mean?

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen is greeted by supporters during a transit stop in Hawaii, March 27, 2019.

Credit: Flickr/Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

On January 9, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States had lifted a set of self-imposed restrictions on contacts with Taiwan. While these “Taiwan Guidelines” were barely known to the general public, they had developed a life of their own in U.S. diplomacy. Below, we present some context and an analysis on the timing and implications of the move.

The guidelines were initiated in 1978, when the United States broke relations with the Nationalist Chinese government on Taiwan, which was still claiming sovereignty over China. The guidelines governed contacts between U.S. and Taiwan officials in the absence of formal diplomatic relations, and restricted, for instance, meeting places (no meetings with Taiwan officials at the State Department, White House, or Executive Office Building), attending formal events at Taiwan’s Twin Oaks estate in Washington, and the level of officials who could meet with their Taiwanese counterparts.  They also stated that the United States should not refer to Taiwan as a “country” or “government.”

Over the years, the guidelines grew into an intricate web of restrictions on the conduct of contacts with Taiwan. They also included a prohibition on visits to Washington, D.C. by Taiwan’s top officials – an elected president and vice president, prime minister, foreign minister, and defense minister – and injunctions on “symbols of sovereignty” such as Taiwan’s flag or use of the name “Taiwan” in the title of Taiwan’s representative office in Washington, which was thus titled the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.”

However, after Taiwan transformed into a vibrant democracy in the early 1990s, the relationship fundamentally changed. The guidelines came to be seen as increasingly anachronistic in dealing with a democratic partner facing an aggressive and belligerent neighbor. Thus, over the past dozen years or so, several of the guidelines were gradually relaxed, but formally stayed in place.

In particular, those who had worked in Taiwan’s democracy movement and helped the country make its momentous transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s perceived the perpetuation of the restrictions as a slight. Among the new generation of young democratic supporters of President Tsai Ing-wen, the sense of injustice was particularly strong: “We are a full democracy now. Why are we being treated as second-class citizens?” they wondered.

The unfairness was also in full display during Tsai’s “transit stops” in the United States. Under the existing guidelines, the U.S. would not allow Tsai to visit Washington to address Congress (as proposed by a number of senators), but did permit “transit stops” in cities like Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami on her way to visit diplomatic allies in Latin America. But while there has been a gradual decrease in the restrictions imposed – such as no public speeches, no statements to the press – the treatment of Taiwan contrasted starkly with the fact that the White House was willing to roll out the red carpet for authoritarian leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Rescinding these guidelines has been pushed for several years by a bipartisan coalition in Congress. The Taiwan Assurance Act of 2020, which was passed in December 2020 as part of the Omnibus legislation, actually contained a clause urging the U.S. government to significantly revise the guidelines.  The relevant text of the legislation is as follows:

(b) SENSE OF CONGRESS.— It is the sense of Congress that the Department of State’s guidance regarding relations with Taiwan—

(1) should be crafted with the intent to deepen and expand United States-Taiwan relations, and be based on the value, merits, and importance of the United States-Taiwan relationship;

(2) should be crafted giving due consideration to the fact that Taiwan is governed by a representative democratic government that is peacefully constituted through free and fair elections that reflect the will of the people of Taiwan, and that Taiwan is a free and open society that respects universal human rights and democratic values; and

(3) should ensure that the conduct of relations with Taiwan reflects the longstanding, comprehensive, and values-based relationship the United States shares with Taiwan, and contribute to the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues.

It was thus the clear intent of the U.S. Congress that the existing restrictions be rescinded, and replaced by a new set of guidelines reflecting the fact that Taiwan is now a vibrant democracy, and intended to “deepen and expand United States-Taiwan relations, and be based on the value, merits, and importance of the United States-Taiwan relationship.”

It must, of course, be noted that the legislative branch itself never had such self-imposed restrictions: they only applied to the executive branch.

That the guidelines have now been rescinded is a welcome step and long overdue. It would of course have been much better if this step had been taken much earlier in the current administration, but better late than never. An advantage is also that the current administration will take the “blame,” and that the new Biden administration can start with a clean slate.

However, there is a downside. As Jessica Drun, a non-resident fellow at Project 2049, a Washington-D.C. think tank focusing on security in the Asia-Pacific region, was quoted as saying by The Guardian:

The seeming lack of coordination with the incoming administration, and the abruptness of the announcement against the backdrop of domestic political turmoil, however, could set a dangerous precedent of making Taiwan a partisan issue in the United States… The United States’ policy towards Taiwan – as imperfect as some may find it – has endured and benefited from consistent support from both sides of the aisle, and a deliberate move to undermine this puts Taiwan in the crosshairs of partisan whims.

Still, it can be expected that in line with the broad bipartisan consensus in support of Taiwan – and certainly if Kurt Campbell becomes the Asia “czar” at the National Security Council, as predicted – the outdated restrictions will disappear pretty fast and make way for a new set of positive and constructive guidelines along the contours outlined in the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2020. In fact, Campbell started to whittle away at the guidelines back when he was assistant secretary of state under the Obama administration (from 2009-2012).

It is thus likely that the Biden-Harris administration will be happy to do without the old restrictions and move towards a new pragmatic approach based, as Congress put it, on the fact that “Taiwan is a free and open society that respects universal human rights and democratic values.”

The decision was also lauded by former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver, now president of Project 2049, who stated that the lifting of all restrictions is “realigning U.S. policy with reality, and setting the stage for a new era of U.S.-Taiwan relations.”

Schriver added that as President-elect Biden assumes office on January 20, “his administration will inherit a posture in U.S.-Taiwan relations removed of unhelpful limitations and difficult political decisions. His administration will be empowered to chart a new course in U.S. policy with tremendous possibilities.”

He concluded by encouraging the incoming Biden administration “to build upon this important moment to support a more peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”

The move will thus make interactions between the U.S. executive branch and the government in Taiwan easier. But does it change the fundamentals of the United States’ one China policy, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the three U.S.-China communiques (1972, 1978, and 1982), or the 1982 Six Assurances?

The answer to that is negative. The basic structure remains in place: there is no change in the status quo, but the changing political landscape – 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.

Peace and stability in East Asia – and the Taiwan Strait in particular – can only be ensured if the United States and allies in the region can work closely together and communicate at all levels with Taiwan regarding the existential threat posed to a free and democratic Taiwan by the government in Beijing. Rescinding the guidelines is a welcome step in the right direction.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016 he served as chief-editor of “Taiwan Communique.” He currently teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University and current issues in East Asia at George Washington University.