On January 9, just 11 days out from the transition to the Biden administration, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dropped a bombshell for U.S.-Taiwan relations, declaring in a statement that all restrictions on official contacts with Taiwan were “null and void.”
“Taiwan is a vibrant democracy and reliable partner of the United States, and yet for several decades the State Department has created complex internal restrictions to regulate our diplomats, servicemembers, and other officials’ interactions with their Taiwanese counterparts,” Pompeo said. “The United States government took these actions unilaterally, in an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing. No more.”
Declaring “I am lifting all of these self-imposed restrictions,” Pompeo said all previous “‘contact guidelines’ regarding relations with Taiwan previously issued by the Department of State” no longer in effect.
The move paves the way for increased contacts between U.S. officials and their Taiwanese counterparts. However, the practical impact may be limited; the Trump administration has just over a week left in office, and is currently embroiled in a domestic crisis stemming from a pro-Trump mob’s violent takeover of the Capitol on January 6. There’s likely little energy for substantial outreach to Taiwan at the moment – and frankly, such contacts at a time when President Donald Trump is facing the real prospect of a second impeachment could reflect poorly on Taipei.
Still, the reaction from Taiwan’s government was enthusiastic and positive. In an e-mailed statement, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO, Taiwan’s de facto embassy in the United States, said, “The State Department’s actions to further Taiwan-U.S. engagements reflect the strength & 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,” TECRO added. “We look forward to broadening the Taiwan-U.S partnership in the months & years ahead.”
Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu also chimed in on Twitter: “I’m grateful to @SecPompeo & @StateDept for lifting restrictions unnecessarily limiting our engagements these past years.”
Despite the change, Pompeo was clear that the U.S.-Taiwan relationship remains an “unofficial” one – Washington not moving to recognize Taiwan’s government. The American Institute for Taiwan will continue to serve as the de facto embassy and handle the U.S. executive branch’s interactions with the country.
While the timing was unexpected, the announcement itself was less so. The decision built on previous legislation passed with strong bipartisan support in both chambers of the U.S. Congress, as TECRO’s statement noted.
First, the Taiwan Travel Act of 2018 expressed “the sense of Congress that the United States Government should encourage visits between officials from the United States and Taiwan at all levels.” The law recommended that U.S. officials from the Cabinet level down travel to Taiwan and meet their counterparts. It also suggested allowing “high-level officials of Taiwan to enter the United States, under conditions which demonstrate appropriate respect for the dignity of such officials,” a reference to current policy that allows Taiwanese leaders to transit through but not officially enter the United States.
The Taiwan Travel Act, while a strong indication of Congressional preference, did not actually mandate such exchanges; it merely recommended them. Since it was passed, a number of Trump administration officials have indeed made the trip to Taiwan, including a visit by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations planned for later this week.
Follow-up legislation, the Taiwan Assurance Act, was included in the mammoth defense spending package just signed into law in December 2020. The Taiwan Assurance Act called for the president to report to Congress on the implementation of the Taiwan Travel Act. It also called for a review of State Department guidelines on diplomacy with Taiwan. Under that law, the secretary of state had 180 days to conduct the review – that Pompeo rushed to make his announcement just weeks later speaks to his desire to prevent the incoming Biden administration from coming to a different conclusion about how to handle U.S.-Taiwan relations.
Over in Beijing, the response was predictably negative, if more muted than might otherwise be expected. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said “China rejects and condemns” the move to end restrictions on exchanges with Taiwan. “The Taiwan question remains the most important and sensitive issue at the core of China-U.S. relations,” Zhao said at the ministry’s daily press briefing on January 11. “The one-China principle is the political foundation of bilateral relations and the precondition for establishing and developing diplomatic relations. We urge the U.S. side to abide by the one-China principle and the three China-U.S. joint communiqués and stop elevating relations and military ties with Taiwan.”
Given the circumstances, that’s a remarkably restrained response. Clearly the Chinese government is holding its fire, waiting to see what the incoming Biden administration will do.
The Biden administration will inherit a hot potato when it assumes office on January 20. There are three basic options. One is to embrace Pompeo’s declaration and move ahead with formal exchanges – whether phone calls or visits – between the U.S. executive branch and Taiwan. That would risk sparking a major crisis with China, but could be done if handled with care. The second option is to issue a statement reinstating the old guidelines – something that would bring immense criticism from Congress, where Taiwan has strong bipartisan support, and feed into the narrative that Biden will be “soft” on China.
The third option is to let Pompeo’s announcement stand, but take no actions that directly countermand the old guidelines – at least for now. This is the most likely route as the Biden administration looks to focus on domestic divisions and the raging pandemic at home.