by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: US State Department/Public Domain

US SECRETARY OF STATE Mike Pompeo announced the lifting of self-imposed restrictions on contacts between the American and Taiwanese governments earlier today in a move that took many by surprise. These restrictions framed how Taiwan and its officials could officially be referred to in American diplomatic exchanges, such as that Taiwan could not be referred to as a “country” or having a “government”, limited where American and Taiwanese officials could meet, and determined the ranks of American officials allowed to attend Taiwan’s national day celebrations. Pompeo framed these restrictions as aimed at “appeasement” of the CCP and claimed that he was declaring an end to such policies in order to put an end to such conciliatory moves directed at the CCP.

The announcement took place shortly on the heels of the unexpected announcement earlier in the week that America’s ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, would be visiting Taiwan between January 13th and January 15th. Like the announcement of the Craft visit, part of the reason why Pompeo’s declaration was surprising was because the Trump administration has less than two weeks remaining in its term. The Craft visit was also announced one day after an attempted occupation of the US Capitol by Trump supporters that took place after Trump alleged election fraud and called on supporters to go to the Capitol; the fallout in the wake of the attempted occupation has left Trump marginalized, seeing as the aim of Trump supporters was to stop the electoral vote that would have confirmed Biden as president, and this has been framed as an attempted coup.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) and US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft (right). Photo credit: US State Department/Public Domain

As such, it is to be questioned whether any last-minute actions by the Trump administration will be binding once the Biden administration takes office. It is believed that the Trump administration may be hoping to push the Biden administration into having to adhere to its shifts in China policy through this series of sudden moves.

Comments from a Biden presidential transition team official quoted in the Financial Times asserted that, on the campaign trail, Biden had expressed commitment to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and One China Policy. Furthermore, Biden would “support a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan” once in office, and emphasized that “American support for Taiwan must remain strong, principled, and bipartisan, and [Biden] plans to work to ensure that.” The comments were likely deliberately ambiguous regarding how the Biden administration would cope with the Trump administration’s precedents.

It is not impossible that the Biden administration will retain the Trump administration’s lifting of such restrictions on reference to Taiwan, or continue its high-level diplomatic exchanges with Taiwan. After all, some have suggested that the Biden administration may inherit the Trump administration’s playbook when it comes to moves aimed at pressuring China, particularly with regard to the use of tariffs—Biden stated in December that he does not intend to immediately remove the Trump administration’s tariffs placed on China.

Structurally, the odds are high that the Biden administration will also be pushed into confrontation with China. But it has been a recurrent question for Taiwan whether the Biden administration will be more conciliatory to China, with perceptions that the Democratic Obama administration was weak on China, and fears that the Biden administration may continue this precedent.

If the Biden administration does take a harder stance on China, one expects American actions to be more multilateral than the Trump administration was, seeing as the Trump administration’s China policy was often unilateral and carried out with little coordination with American allies. That being said, more coordinated efforts to put pressure on China could potentially still exclude Taiwan, seeing as tough China policy does not necessarily entail support for Taiwan either.

American President-elect Joe Biden. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC

Indeed, the Trump administration’s last-minute actions that purport to aid Taiwan could, in fact, be more dangerous for Taiwan than not. Though the lifting of American restrictions on contacts with Taiwan would unequivocally represent stronger US-Taiwan relations if it was carried out under bipartisan auspices, moves by the Trump administration aimed at forcibly shifting the Biden administration’s China policy or simply aimed at frustrating the Biden administration could lead to antagonisms toward Taiwan.

Support for Taiwan may be perceived as a partisan Republican issue, leading to Democrats to shy away from support for Taiwan, or even feel antagonistic toward Taiwan—much in the way that the Obama administration sabotaged Tsai Ing-wen’s 2012 presidential run through a phone call to the Financial Times expressing concerns about Tsai’s ability to maintain stable cross-strait relations. One of the explanations for why this phone call took place is because Obama administration officials begrudged Taiwan as a “troublemaker” disruptive of its efforts to maintain regional stability through its efforts to defend its sovereignty.

Otherwise, moves to aid Taiwan may simply be read as part of the desperate, erratic behavior of the Trump administration on its way out of office, leading such policy shifts to be taken less seriously even when they could be significant or beneficial to Taiwan. Support for Taiwan could be increasingly perceived as inherently risky or provocative if it is only associated with erratic Trump administration policy shifts. 

Certainly, Taiwan has publicly thanked the Trump administration. Taiwan’s representative to the US, Hsiao Bi-khim, stated in a tweet that the declaration by Pompeo ended “decades of discrimination.” But Taiwan has little option but to publicly express support for any actions that America takes that are framed as benefiting Taiwan, even if such actions are carried out with little coordination with Taiwan. For example, it is a question as to whether the Taiwanese government was aware of plans by the Trump administration to send Kelly Craft to Taiwan before the sudden announcement of the visit last week.

To this extent, in the last few weeks of the Trump administration, the Tsai administration finds itself in the awkward position of hoping to benefit from last-minute moves of the Trump administration while also having to build ties with the incoming Biden administration. This proves a challenging balancing act, seeing as the Tsai administration does not want to offend either side. Coming off as too eager to build ties with the Biden administration could offend Republicans supportive of Taiwan that have aligned themselves with Trump’s challenging of the American presidential election results. At the same time, with an incoming Democratic presidential administration, the Tsai administration does, in fact, need to ensure that Taiwan is not only associated with Republicans.

Tweet by Hsiao Bi-khim on the lifting of the restrictions

Much of this, then, returns to how Taiwan’s regional security is often held hostage by American domestic politics. Yet this should not surprise, returning to the fundamental relationship between the US and Taiwan, insofar as Taiwan is used as a wedge issue against China and supportive policy of Taiwan from so-called friends is sometimes only aimed at hitting back at China rather than any genuine interest in Taiwan’s welfare. Whether under a Democratic or Republican presidential administration, this will not change.

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