Pompeo’s 11th-hour announcement and the future of U.S.-Taiwan engagement

Is the outgoing Trump administration simply trying to complicate things for the president-elect?

Date:  January 14, 2021
By: Jennifer Conrad

Illustration by Alex Santafé

On Saturday, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a surprise announcement: the U.S. executive branch, including the State Department, would no longer abide by its self-imposed restrictions on government contact with Taiwan. Those restrictions, which have evolved since the U.S. broke formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, had been made to “appease the Communist regime in Beijing,” Pompeo wrote in a press statement. By Monday, the first known meeting that Pompeo’s announcement paved the way for took place in the Netherlands, when Pete Hoekstra, the American ambassador, hosted Chen Hsing-hsing, Taiwan’s representative to the Netherlands, at the U.S. embassy in the Hague. Chen said on Twitter she was “extremely pleased and honored” to have visited the embassy for the first time in her diplomatic career.

The Trump administration’s approach to Taiwan, the self-governing island claimed by China, has been norm-breaking from the start, when Donald Trump accepted a congratulatory call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén) before taking office — the first contact between a Taiwan leader and sitting or incoming American head of state since 1979. Over the past four years, the United States has ramped up public shows of support for Taiwan, including billions of dollars in arms sales and high-profile visits, most recently Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s trip last August. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft was scheduled to visit Taiwan this week, but her trip, like all State Department travel for the remainder of the Trump administration, was abruptly canceled on Tuesday — to the relief of many in Taiwan. Instead, she met with President Tsai by video link on Wednesday.

“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,” according to Pompeo’s announcement. “Additionally, any and all sections of the Foreign Affairs Manual or Foreign Affairs Handbook that convey authorities or otherwise purport to regulate executive branch engagement with Taiwan via any entity other than the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) are also hereby voided.”

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