US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, a pro-China diplomat with little sympathy for Taiwan, has resigned and will return to academia.
He is to be replaced by William Burns, a Middle East expert who is currently undersecretary for political affairs and the department’s third-ranking official.
The move is unlikely to have an immediate impact on US-Taiwan relations at a time when Washington is preoccupied with developments in the Arab world.
Announcing Steinberg’s departure on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said: “Jim has been particularly instrumental in shaping our renewed engagement in the Asia-Pacific.”
“From managing our expanding relationship with China, to reaffirming our historic alliance with Japan, to addressing challenges on the Korean Peninsula, Jim has been at the center of shaping our efforts,” she said.
Clinton said Steinberg had been a “fixture” at meetings with the National Security Council (NSC) and frequently represented the US State Department at the White House.
Insiders said Steinberg has been at least partly responsible for US President Barack Obama’s decision to put Taiwan’s request to buy advanced F-16 aircraft on the backburner. He is said to have argued in private that F-16 sales to Taiwan would not result in enough benefits to justify upsetting Beijing.
US-Taiwan Business Council president Rupert Hammond-Chambers said US decisions regarding Taiwan were made collectively through an interagency process, coordinated by the NSC.
“That said, Steinberg did have the power to say no. It was a power he exercised reflexively when it came to Taiwan,” he said.
“I believe his actions spoke volumes for his view of Taiwan and the issues he believed it created for the US-China relationship. We can only hope that his successor takes a more balanced view of American interests on Taiwan and injects some badly needed ambition into our goals for US-Taiwan relations,” he said.
“I’m hopeful that a reassessment of our Taiwan policy will accompany the change,” said Walter Lohman, director of Asian studies at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
“US-Taiwan relations right now are going nowhere. Steinberg was a well-known advocate for closer relations with China and I think that tendency was undermining movement in US-Taiwan relations,” Lohman said.
Steinberg is leaving the State Department to become dean of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in New York State. Prior to serving as deputy secretary of state, he was dean of the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.
An article on the New York Times Web site said Steinberg’s departure had been rumored for some time and that he “never became close to Mrs Clinton, despite having served as deputy national security adviser to her husband.”
Burns, the highest-ranking career diplomat in the department, has been deeply involved in policies concerning Iran and its nuclear program and the upheaval in the Arab world.
“He will bring incomparable depth and experience to the job, as well as important continuity,” Clinton said.
Steinberg will be remembered for his “strategic reassurance” policies toward Beijing.
Analyzing these policies in the Wall Street Journal, Kelley Currie, a nonresident fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, wrote: “There is a chance that the US is starting a quiet but important strategic shift away from a policy that incorporates an understood, if often inchoate, desire to see China become a more liberal and democratic society, toward an acceptance of China as a permanent authoritarian state.”