Like a thunderbolt out of the blue, with only 11 days remaining of US President Donald Trump’s term, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday last week announced that the US Department of State had, effective immediately, lifted all “self-imposed” restrictions on how US diplomats and other government officials engage with their Taiwanese counterparts.
Pompeo’s announcement immediately triggered a backlash. Criticisms leveled by former US National Security Council director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia affairs Evan Medeiros, who served in the administration of former US president Barack Obama, were representative of the disapproving reaction.
“The administration is over in two weeks… It looks like a publicity stunt,” Medeiros said.
Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd also weighed in, saying: “If Pompeo was serious about this, why not do this one or two years ago?”
Others opined that the move was a departing shot by Trump, designed to shake up US-China relations and set a trap for the incoming administration of US president-elect Joe Biden.
In fact, the seeds of Trump’s departing shot were sown by his protocol-breaking phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in late 2016. Since then, the Trump administration has used a combination of legislation and other actions to close in on its dramatic endgame step-by-step.
US Senator Tom Cotton, US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel and US Representative Michael McCaul began to prepare the ground in March and April last year, proposing the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2020 in the House of Representatives and US Senate, which requires the state department to review its “contact guidelines” for Taiwan.
On Dec. 22 last year, the US Congress passed an appropriations bill for the next fiscal year that included the act.
The act requires Pompeo’s department to review the guidelines within 180 days of being signed into law and to propose new guidelines. Far from being a “confused internal document,” as has been claimed by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Deputy Secretary-General Huang Kwei-bo (黃奎博), the new guidelines are the result of proper congressional procedure.
In many respects, Pompeo has been running ahead of the law. Last year, the US’ Coordination Council for North American Affairs in Taipei was renamed the Taiwan Council for US Affairs, then-Taiwan National Security Council secretary-general David Lee (李大維) met with former US national security adviser John Bolton, and in August, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar visited Taiwan and met with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).
The state department waited to officially announce the voiding of its four-decades-old contact guidelines after the act was passed by Congress on Jan. 9.
Just a few days later, on Monday last week, Representative to the US Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) met with US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper, and on Thursday, US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft held a virtual meeting with Tsai.
The trend of events is clear: The US-China relationship cannot go back to what it was.
The New York Times quoted a Trump administration official as saying that the legacy of the Trump administration will perhaps be his tough stance on China and the establishment of closer ties with Taiwan. The official added that the Trump administration is thinking up ways in which it can prevent Biden from backsliding on its policies.
The New York Times also quoted Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick to head the state department, as saying that he might block contact with high-level Taiwanese officials.
However, the article’s main point came toward the end, where it concluded that there is increasing cross-party support for closer ties with Taipei.
Those who are expecting the Biden administration to overturn Trump’s China policy are promoting hope over facts.
For example, the Chinese-language newspaper United Daily News, which is close to the pan-blue camp, on Jan. 10 ran an article titled: “Be careful of beautiful presents concealing political intent.”
If there is any malicious intent, it appears to be coming from that camp.
KMT Legislator Alex Fai (費鴻泰) described Craft, after her visit to Taiwan had been canceled, as an “unwanted guest.”
The language used is shameful and betrays a certain vulgarity in its speaker.
The most stupefying intervention came from KMT Chairman Johnny Chiang (江啟臣), who warned the Tsai administration not to allow Taiwan to become a “bargaining chip” or a “pawn” in the tussle between the US and China.
This kind of language is no different from that of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) spokesman Ma Xiaoguang (馬曉光) and spokeswoman Zhu Fenglian (朱鳳蓮), who have depicted Taiwan as the US’ “chess piece.”
The Chinese Communist Party and the KMT really are singing from the same hymn sheet.
Chin Heng-wei is a political commentator.
Translated by Edward Jones
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