With barely a week to go before Donald Trump leaves the White House, the United States has unveiled a paradigm shift in its relations with Taiwan.
Joe Biden, the next occupant of the Oval office, will have to cope with this dramatic change in geostrategy. Going by the announcement of the outgoing Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, restrictions on contacts between US officials and their Chinese counterparts are to be lifted.
The apparent change in relations is almost certain to further antagonise China and stoke tensions between Beijing and Washington.
Historically, China has claimed that Taiwan, a democratic and separately ruled nation, as its own territory. This rather expansionist diplomacy is of a piece with Beijing’s anxiety to test the murky waters of Hong Kong, over which it regained control after Britain’s exit in 1997.
Of course, the US, like most countries, has no official equation with Taiwan, let alone diplomatic dealings. However, the Trump administration has given an impetus to its support for the island country with arms sales and laws to help Taiwan deal with pressure from Beijing.
After years of ping-pong diplomacy, the US had formally recognised Beijing and withdrawn diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979. Pompeo has over the weekend recalled that for several decades the State Department, of which he as Secretary of State was at the helm over the past few years, had created what he called complex internal restrictions on interactions with Taiwanese counterparts by American diplomats, service members and other officials.
“The United States took these actions unilaterally in an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing”. China’s President for- life, Xi Jinping, is rather unlikely to be impressed with Pompeo’s overture. “Today I am announcing that I am lifting all of these self-imposed restrictions,” was at the core of the change in stance on 12 January. The State Department hopes that once Biden is in office he will continue to support a “peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan.”
While it would be a mite premature to speculate on Biden’s response, Taiwan’s government, craving recognition but suffocated globally by China’s might, has welcomed the move, indeed a remarkable shift in geostrategy. “Decades of discrimination removed. A huge day in our bilateral relationship,” is the almost euphoric response of Taiwan’s de facto ambassador in Washington, Hsiao Bi-khim. At another remove, China’s state-run media has sharply criticised Pompeo, accusing him of “seeking to maliciously inflict a long-lasting scar on bilateral ties”.
The long-standing policy has been reversed eleven days before the presidential inaugural and the customary grandstanding. While Pompeo’s announcement underscores Trump’s tough stance on China, it shall not be easy for the new US administration to cope with Beijing’s anger in the aftermath of a largely symbolic deepening of ties with Taiwan.