WASHINGTON — The United States said on Saturday that it would relax its restrictions on interactions between American officials and their counterparts in Taiwan as the Trump administration seeks to lock in a tougher line against Beijing in its final days.
A set of complex guidelines meant to make it difficult for American officials to visit with Taiwan’s officials was put in place after the adoption of the “One China policy” in 1979, which recognized the communist government in Beijing and removed recognition of the nationalist government that ruled Taiwan.
In a statement on Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States had unilaterally imposed the restrictions “in an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing.”
“I am lifting all of these self-imposed restrictions,” Mr. Pompeo said. “Executive branch agencies should consider all ‘contact guidelines’ regarding relations with Taiwan previously issued by the Department of State under authorities delegated to the secretary of state to be null and void.”
But Evan S. Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown University and a former National Security Council staff member, said the move was likely to have little practical effect. “It looks like a publicity stunt,” he said. “The administration is over in two weeks.”
China, Dr. Medeiros said, is almost certain to react angrily to the announcement, but it is unlikely to make any move to upset relations with President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. before he takes office.
“The Chinese want to make sure that nobody has any illusions about how damaging something like this would be,” Dr. Medeiros said. “That’s the purpose of the rhetoric, but they will stop short of actually blowing up the relationship with an incoming administration until they see how Biden’s going to approach it.”
As of Sunday morning, China had not yet commented officially on the latest moves from the State Department. But Beijing has said for months that it was girding itself for what it has called a “final act of madness” and “staged hysteria” from the Trump administration on issues related to China.
Global Times, a state-run Chinese tabloid, published a brief report about the lifting of the restrictions on Sunday morning with the headline: “The final madness! Pompeo tweets that the U.S. will lift official restrictions on contact with Taiwan.”
“If this is the new starting point of US’ Taiwan policy, it will also start the countdown of the survival of the Taiwan authority,” the tabloid’s top editor, Hu Xijin, who is sometimes seen as a combative public voice for the Chinese government, tweeted on Sunday.
“The option of using military means to solve Taiwan question will also be put on the table,” he said, adding that fighter jets could fly over the island “at any time.”
Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, said he expected Beijing to respond forcefully to the announcement to send a signal to the incoming Biden administration.
“China will have zero patience, they will denounce this immediately,“ Professor Shen said. “Biden needs to see the damage so that he treats it urgently and reverses this.”
The Presidential Transition
In trying to warm relations with Taiwan, the Trump administration is ending much as it started. In December 2016, Mr. Trump took a congratulatory call from the president of Taiwan, prompting speculation that his administration might shift longstanding American policy.
Still, taking such a relatively significant step with so few days left in the term left some scratching their heads. Internally, some State Department officials had registered their objections to the change, suggesting that it was being made without the proper review. Some diplomats have been dismayed by what they see as a flurry of last-minute diplomatic moves involving decisions that could have been made much earlier in the term.
The moves, some outside experts said, are meant to lay a trap for Mr. Biden, forcing him either to pay a domestic political cost if he unwinds them or to sour relations with Beijing if he does not.
A Biden transition official said Mr. Biden remained committed to the One China policy, as well as the Taiwan Relations Act, which ensures ties, and arm sales, between Taipei and Washington. Mr. Biden believes support for Taiwan should be strong and bipartisan, the official said.
China views Taiwan as its sovereign territory, and Taipei has never declared independence. The U.S. policy acknowledges that Beijing makes a claim to Taiwan but does not recognize the claim.
Beijing has long reacted negatively to any efforts by Taipei to normalize or regularize relations with Washington. It has denounced trips to the United States by officials from Taiwan and criticized meetings with American officials. The opposition from Beijing, and the State Department’s complex rules, have ensured that most interactions between the United States and Taiwan take place at a relatively low level.
Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is scheduled to travel to Taiwan this week for a three-day visit aimed at bolstering support for the self-governed island’s expanded participation in international organizations. As cross-strait relations have soured in recent years, China has wielded its growing economic and political clout to chip away at Taiwan’s international status, including by blocking any attempt by the island to join international organizations like the United Nations.
Over the past year, Taiwan has sought to capitalize on its incredible success in controlling the coronavirus to lobby for its participation in the World Health Organization. The island of 23 million people has so far had only 828 cases and seven deaths from the virus, despite its proximity to the mainland.
The Trump administration has taken up the issue as well, and it was prominently highlighted during a trip to the island last August by Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, the highest-level American visit to Taiwan in decades. China responded to Mr. Azar’s visit by sending two fighter jets toward Taiwan, part of a more aggressive stance from Beijing over the past year that has seen People’s Liberation Army aircraft fly toward the island almost daily.
China, which vehemently opposes any diplomatic gesture that they see as validating Taiwan’s official status, condemned news of Ms. Craft’s upcoming visit and vowed to retaliate.
At a regularly scheduled press briefing on Friday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, cited Mr. Pompeo in saying that “a few anti-China politicians” in the Trump administration “have put on stage their final madness, unscrupulously using the remaining days in office to sabotage China-U.S. relations and serve their personal political gains.”
Mr. Pompeo’s announcement was welcomed in Taiwan, which has pushed for closer relations with the United States as Beijing’s behavior has grown more aggressive. Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, said on Twitter that he was grateful to Mr. Pompeo for lifting restrictions that were “unnecessarily limiting our engagements these past years.”
Administration officials believe the tougher line against China — and a warmer relationship with Taiwan — is likely to be part of Mr. Trump’s legacy. They have been looking for ways to lock in policy changes that might be difficult for Mr. Biden to reverse, to install officials skeptical of China in roles that could continue after Mr. Trump’s term end and to shift resources to studying and gathering intelligence on China.
In recent weeks, John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, has begun those shifts resources and has pushed for more diverse analytical views on China.
Mr. Pompeo’s move will be relatively easy for Antony J. Blinken, Mr. Biden’s pick to be the next secretary of state, to undo. And even if Mr. Blinken does not reinstate the regulations, Mr. Biden could discourage high-level contact with Taiwan officials.
But with Beijing’s clampdown on Hong Kong, there is growing bipartisan support for closer ties with Taipei, if only to discourage China from trying to reclaim Taiwan by force.
Many of the restrictions on meetings with Taiwan officials were the product of an earlier era of more hopeful relations with Beijing, said Elbridge Colby, who served in the Pentagon at the beginning of the Trump administration.
“These are bureaucratic hindrances, barnacles that had accumulated over time,” Mr. Colby said.
With Beijing cracking down on democratic movements and asserting itself globally, it is critical to strengthen ties with Taiwan, Mr. Colby said.
“We need Taiwan to increase its resilience, its defensibility, its economic strength, because there’s a real possibility that China will take aggressive action against it, “ he said.