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International relations

Taiwan to remain US priority despite cancellation of envoy visit

Pompeo shakes up Taiwan policy ahead of Biden inauguration

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday lifted restrictions on contacts between U.S. and Taiwanese officials. (Source photos by Reuters and AP)

NEW YORK -- Taiwan has spent four years in the foreign policy limelight under U.S. President Donald Trump. Now, his top diplomat has made last-minute moves that could keep the East Asian island on top of President-elect Joe Biden's overseas agenda.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday lifted restrictions on contacts between U.S. and Taiwan officials, including rules dictating where representatives may meet and preventing the U.S. from referring to Taiwan as a "country." He said in a statement that the rules -- imposed internally each year for decades -- had been put in place "in an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing."

Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan's representative in Washington, said on Twitter the decision represented "decades of discrimination, removed."

The decision shakes up a delicate balance in cross-strait relations for Biden, leading some to recall when Trump, as president-elect, chose to take a phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen shortly after he won the November 2016 election.

"The Trump administration started its Taiwan relations with a bang," said Shihoko Goto, senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center, referring to the phone call. "Now we're concluding with this."

Pompeo's plans to leave his mark on ties between Taipei and Washington took a hit on Tuesday when the State Department announced the cancellation of a planned trip to Taiwan by Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The trip would have been the latest in a series of high-level visits by Trump administration officials to Taiwan that have drawn the ire of Beijing.

Some analysts believe the chaos shaking the final days of Trump's presidency has made its way into Pompeo's Asia policy.

As Trump faces growing calls for his impeachment and removal from office, Pompeo has reportedly become isolated at the State Department. His announced rule changes, which bipartisan members of Congress have supported for years, were read by many as an empty gesture by an unpopular outgoing secretary.

"The fact that they're doing it at the last minute ... diminishes the seriousness of the move," said Shelley Rigger, Brown Professor of East Asian Politics at Davidson College.

"Taken earlier, these measures might have been incremental moves toward a big change -- diplomatic recognition of Taiwan," she said. "But because they're coming so late, they're just incremental moves toward nothing in particular."

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar at the presidential office in Taipei on August 10, 2020.   © Reuters

During the Trump administration, Taiwan has received unprecedented attention from the U.S. in the form of official high-level visits, support for Taiwan's inclusion in World Health Organization functions, and increased arms sales to the island.

This has frequently angered Beijing, which has made its desire to assert sovereignty over Taiwan into a domestic priority under President Xi Jinping.

After Pompeo announced Craft's planned visit to Taiwan last week, the Chinese government warned the U.S. was playing with fire. Beijing sent warplanes to buzz Taiwan's airspace during and after a high-level visit in August by U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar.

Despite the cancellation of Craft's visit, Pompeo's late action on Taiwan in the last days of Trump's presidency "gives greater emphasis for the Biden administration to continue to focus its attention on Taiwan, which is not a bad thing for Taiwan," Goto said.

Taiwan has lobbied the incoming Biden administration to ensure it remains a priority, and Hsiao, the representative to Washington, spoke in November to Antony Blinken, Biden's nominee for secretary of state.

With Biden likely to focus on domestic political priorities at the start of his term, Pompeo's abolition of contact restrictions -- and the possibility of continued retribution from Beijing -- serves as "further impetus to make sure that Taiwan gets the attention it deserves," Goto said.

A spokesperson for Biden's transition team told the Financial Times last week the new administration will "continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan."

The spokesperson reiterated Biden's commitment to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, a foundational law that "will dictate future interactions in the Biden administration," said Roselyn Hsueh, an associate political science professor at Temple University.

The Tsai administration will prioritize its pursuit of a free trade agreement with the U.S. Although Tsai lifted restrictions on imports of U.S. pork and beef in August -- a move that carried domestic political cost -- it was unable to forge such a pact with Trump's trade negotiators.

Outgoing U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer on Monday told The Wall Street Journal in an interview the country's trade disputes with Taiwan are not yet resolved, citing "a large and growing trade deficit with Taiwan."

Taiwan's foreign ministry said on Tuesday it will continue to pursue a bilateral trade agreement with the U.S.

"At least with Biden in office there's a chance of economic progress," Rigger said. "Trump had four years to do it, but he didn't."

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