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.
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.”
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.
The Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States in Washington, D.C., 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.
It 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.
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.
Since then, experts said the US has increasingly used Taiwan as a cudgel amid the acrimony.
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 benefited 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.