The State Department has announced that it will make it easier for US officials to meet Taiwanese representatives, defying pressure from China at a time of high tensions, and as the US Congress considers sweeping legislation to counter Beijing’s influence.
The United States still considers Beijing to be China’s legitimate government, consistent with its switch of recognition in 1979, but will do away with some of the convoluted rules that restricted dealings with Taiwan, including in-person meetings.
The updated guidance “underscores Taiwan is a vibrant democracy and an important security and economic partner that is also a force for good in the international community,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
“These new guidelines liberalize guidance on contacts with Taiwan, consistent with our unofficial relations,” he said in a statement.
The move by President Joe Biden’s administration formalises increasingly vocal US support for Taiwan, a self-governing democracy, and came in response to an act of Congress that required a review.
Taiwan’s mission in Washington – officially called the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States”, rather than an embassy – welcomed the new guidelines, saying they reflected a bipartisan consensus for closer relations.
“Taiwan and the US share a deep and abiding partnership based on our common values and joint interests,” it said, pointing to cooperation on global health, space, trade and democracy promotion.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a staunch critic of Beijing, in his last days in office, said that he was getting rid of previous guidelines on dealing with Taiwan but not issue new ones, drawing confusion in some quarters on what had changed.
Under the guidelines issued by the Biden administration, US officials will be allowed to invite Taiwanese representatives into government buildings in Washington or attend working-level meetings at the Taiwanese mission, both of which were previously prohibited, a State Department official said.
The US began allowing open interactions with Taiwanese diplomats after Pompeo ended the earlier guidance.
The Biden administration last month sent the US ambassador to Palau on a visit to Taiwan to accompany the president of the island nation – one of a dwindling number of countries that recognise Taipei. The ambassador was the highest-ranking US diplomat to visit Taiwan in 42 years.
Similarly, the acting US ambassador in Japan in March tweeted a picture of himself meeting at his official residence with his Taiwanese counterpart – the type of day-to-day diplomacy that is usually a non-event but which Washington had previously shied away from with Taiwan for fear of upsetting Beijing.
The new guidelines are also expected to relax the strict protocol on whether junior US officials can appear at Twin Oaks, the lush, forested residence of Taiwan’s envoy in Washington.
Twin Oaks events routinely draw a who’s who of US lawmakers and former officials but sitting government employees are careful to steer clear.
Senior US officials have periodically visited Taiwan, with former President Donald Trump’s health secretary travelling in August, although Washington has remained careful not to anger China by sending cabinet members involved in national security.
China considers Taiwan, where the mainland’s defeated nationalists fled in 1949 after losing the civil war, to be a territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.
Taiwan in recent days reported growing air incursions by Beijing. Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, has called the approach “self-defeating.”
The US has voiced concern about the Chinese moves and warned against the use of coercion against Taiwan.
Under the Taiwan Relations Act approved by Congress when the US switched recognition, Washington is required to provide Taiwan with weapons for its self-defence.
The easing of rules comes amid soaring tensions between the US and China on multiple fronts.
On Friday, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee announced that it will consider sweeping legislation to counter China’s influence on April 21.
The “Strategic Competition Act of 2021” includes a range of diplomatic and strategic initiatives to counteract Beijing, reflecting hard-line sentiment on dealings with China members of both political parties.
The 280-page bill addresses economic competition with China, but also humanitarian and democratic values, such as imposing sanctions for the treatment of the minority Muslim Uighurs and supporting democracy in Hong Kong.
Relations with China is one of the most bipartisan issues in Washington, with both Democrats and Republicans generally backing efforts to do more to compete against Beijing.