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It began with a surprise phone call and will end with a surprise trip, but the Trump Administration’s close relationship with Taiwan will reach a finale next week when Kelly Craft, the US ambassador to the United Nations, arrives in Taipei just days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the groundbreaking trip on Thursday, in a statement in which he also condemned China’s Communist Party (CCP) over its role in the mass arrests of 53 pro-democracy politicians, activists and academics in Hong Kong earlier this week.
The trip, scheduled for January 13 – 15, marks the first time such a senior official has visited the island.
Pompeo called Taiwan a “reliable partner and vibrant democracy that has flourished despite CCP efforts to undermine its great success.”
The trip brings full circle a relationship that began just over four years ago on December 2, 2016, when US President Donald Trump broke with years of tradition and accepted a phone call of congratulations from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
— U.S. Asia Pacific Media Hub (@eAsiaMediaHub) January 8, 2021
The phone call angered officials in Beijing, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan. Since then, the US has made use of Taiwan in the Trump administration’s increasingly acrimonious relationship with China, say experts.
The trip by Craft, however, is the most overt statement yet, said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The State Department announcement of the upcoming visit, which directly linked the decision to send Ambassador Craft to Taiwan to China’s actions against pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, is the clearest evidence yet that the Trump administration views Taiwan as a cudgel it can use against Beijing,” Glaser said by email.
In an immediate response, China’s UN mission warned that “whoever plays with fire will burn himself”.
As Washington’s relationship with Beijing has deteriorated over the past four years, Taiwan has benefitted from record arms sales and visits by high-ranking US officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and a two-star military general earlier this year.
Trump also signed the Taiwan Assurances Act into law late last year, which deepens US-Taiwan ties even though both places do not maintain formal diplomatic relations.
Many Taiwanese are concerned about the approach that Biden, a Democrat, will take after he is sworn in on January 20.
Democrats have traditionally maintained closer ties with Beijing and China has increased pressure on Taiwan since Tsai was first elected president in 2016.
Since her re-election in a landslide a year ago, China’s People’s Liberation Army has escalated military manoeuvres near Taiwanese airspace and its unofficial border in the Strait of Taiwan.
Glaser says she expects to see more exercises next week.
“China has said, ‘We wish to remind the United States that whoever plays with fire will burn himself. The United States will pay a heavy price for its wrong action.’ Expect that the PLA will send large numbers of military aircraft into Taiwan’s ADIZ [air defence identification zone] and across the centre-line of the Strait,” Glaser said.
However, Glaser and other analysts doubt that Beijing will do much more beyond the fiery rhetoric.
They will be keeping an eye on Biden and hoping for an improvement in relations with the US once he takes the helm despite broad bipartisan support for a tougher line on China.
“In terms of China’s response, it’s likely that China will direct its anger solely at Taiwan, hesitant to pursue any punitive measures against Washington two weeks before a new administration, which Beijing hopes will be a reset in the US-China relationship,” said Jessica Drun, a non-resident fellow at the Project 2049 Institute.
Ian Rowen at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, says that despite the headline-grabbing nature of the visit, it will probably have little real impact on Taiwan-US relations given the timing and uncertainty over Biden’s approach.
“Craft’s visit to Taiwan is unlikely to have immediate effects on anyone but Craft and her team, who may briefly glimpse what a democracy with strong public health infrastructure and a commitment to [what] a cleaner energy transition looks like,” he said.