Beijing has held military drills near the Taiwan Straits and has deployed marines and missiles to its southern coast.
The United States will end its decades-old restrictions on official contacts with Taiwan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced, a move in the final days of President Donald Trump’s administration that is certain to anger China.
In a statement on Saturday, Pompeo said the US State Department had for several decades “created complex internal restrictions to regulate our diplomats, servicemembers, and other officials’ interactions with their Taiwanese counterparts”.
“The United States government took these actions unilaterally, in an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing,” he said. “No more.”
It was not clear what the change means in practice, with Pompeo saying executive branch communications with Taiwan will be handled by the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which is owned by the US government and serves as the de facto embassy on Taiwan.
Today, I am lifting all self-imposed restrictions on executive branch agencies’ interactions with their counterparts from Taiwan. This action will benefit both of our great democracies. https://t.co/JmxE5jsZYf
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) January 9, 2021
Taiwan’s government welcomed the move.
“Decades of discrimination, removed,” tweeted Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s diplomatic envoy to the States. “A huge day in our bilateral relationship. I will cherish every opportunity.”
Decades of discrimination, removed. A huge day in our bilateral relationship. I will cherish every opportunity. https://t.co/kR29OLLcFh
— Bi-khim Hsiao 蕭美琴 (@bikhim) January 9, 2021
Foreign minister Joseph Wu said he was grateful Pompeo had lifted “restrictions unnecessarily limiting our engagements”.
“The closer partnership between Taiwan and the US is firmly based on our shared values, common interests and unshakeable belief in freedom and democracy,” he added.
… partnership between #Taiwan🇹🇼 & the #US🇺🇸 is firmly based on our shared values, common interests & unshakeable belief in freedom & democracy. We'll continue working in the months & years ahead to ensure Taiwan is & continues to be a force for good in the world. JW 2/2
— 外交部 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ROC (Taiwan) 🇹🇼 (@MOFA_Taiwan) January 10, 2021
The Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States in Washington, DC, which serves as Taiwan’s unofficial embassy, said the move showed the “strength and depth” of the US-Taiwan relationship.
However, the declaration – which comes less than two weeks before US President-elect Joe Biden is set to be inaugurated – is expected to upset China, which views Taiwan as its own territory and has worked to keep it isolated on the world stage.
On Sunday, Chinese state media lashed out at the US move, accusing Pompeo of “seeking to maliciously inflict a long-lasting scar on China-US ties”.
A commentary posted online by CGTN, the English-language channel of state broadcaster CCTV, called Pompeo’s announcement “a cowardly act of sabotage” of the next US administration.
“Taiwan is in the constitution as part of China, and it’s something that they will defend,” Einar Tangen, a political analyst in Beijing, told Al Jazeera.
“This is not something that is up for debate, you can expect very … strong reactions, and they will be looking at Biden to undo this, otherwise they are going to be serious consequences, and even more trouble between these two powers,” he said.
The US has historically kept Taiwan at arms length to help maintain ties with China.
However, the relationship between Washington and Beijing has deteriorated during the last four years, with Trump’s acceptance of a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on December 2, 2016, setting the tone.
The US announcement also came days before Kelly Craft, the US ambassador to the United Nations, is set to visit the island from January 13 to 15. Craft will be the highest-ranking US official to do so.
This week, China warned the Trump administration that it would pay a “heavy price” if Craft’s planned visit takes place.
“The United States will pay a heavy price for its wrong action,” the Chinese mission to the UN said in a statement.
“China strongly urges the United States to stop its crazy provocation, stop creating new difficulties for China-US relations … and stop going further on the wrong path.”
Taiwan has benefitted from the discord, with record US arms sales and visits from other officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
Last year, Trump also signed into law the Taiwan Assurances Act, which deepens US-Taiwan ties even though the two do not maintain formal diplomatic relations.
Analysts said Craft’s upcoming visit will likely be more symbolic than impactful, as it will take place days before Biden assumes office and Taiwanese leaders are anxiously waiting to see how he will approach the relationship.
Kristin Stapleton, a professor of history at the University of Buffalo and expert on US-China relations, told Al Jazeera that Pompeo’s announcement appears aimed at putting pressure on the incoming Biden administration “to move US policy in the direction of greater support for Taiwan”.
“I don’t think, though, that it will affect the new administration’s approach to East Asian affairs significantly,” Stapleton said in an email. “It will establish its own policies in regard to relations with Taiwan with no reference to Pompeo’s announcement.”