US to make it easier for diplomats to meet Taiwanese officials

US to make it easier for diplomats to meet Taiwanese officials

Plan to loosen restrictions on contacts with Taipei threatens to provoke China

The Biden administration is preparing to issue guidelines that would make it easier for US diplomats to meet Taiwanese officials by adopting some of the changes introduced by Donald Trump, in a move China is likely to see as a provocation.

In one of his final acts in office, Trump significantly loosened constraints that had made it difficult for US diplomats to hold such meetings. Experts were waiting to see if Joe Biden would reverse course.

But the Biden administration has decided to keep many of the Trump changes in place, according to people briefed on the policy. The limits on contacts between American diplomats and Taiwanese officials had been in effect for decades until Trump loosened them.

One person familiar with the guidelines said they would focus on encouraging US officials to meet Taiwanese counterparts rather than imposing limits on contact. A second person said most of the restrictions on interactions “between US and Taiwanese diplomats . . . will disappear”.

The show of support for Taiwanese officials was the latest manifestation of Biden’s increasingly tough stance towards China. A senior official last week told the Financial Times that his administration was concerned China was flirting with seizing control of Taiwan.

The original restrictions on meetings were introduced after the US switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. However, in January, Mike Pompeo, then secretary of state, rescinded many of the restrictions after Congress in December passed the Taiwan Assurance Act, which mandated a review within 180 days.

In his confirmation hearing, Antony Blinken, now secretary of state, said he wanted to create “more space for contacts” with Taiwanese officials.

On Monday, in a highly unusual move, John Hennessey-Niland, US envoy to Palau, visited Taiwan with the president of the western Pacific country — one of 15 nations that recognises Taipei instead of Beijing.

China responded by sending 10 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, its second big intrusion in four days.

The visit alongside the president of Palau was just one example of how Biden has moved to provide Taiwan with more public support than when he was vice-president in the Obama administration. In January, Biden invited Hsiao Bi-khim to become the first Taiwanese ambassador to the US to attend a presidential inauguration.

Joseph Young, acting US ambassador to Japan, recently welcomed his Taiwanese counterpart to his Tokyo residence and announced the visit on Twitter.

After Paraguay — which also recognises Taipei — said China had offered to provide Covid-19 vaccines in exchange for changing diplomatic ties, Blinken called the president of the South American nation to stress the importance of working with democratic partners such as Taiwan.

One US official said the call, which was made public, was a deliberate effort to provide public support to the countries that still recognise Taiwan.

“Paraguay is in play, the Chinese are trying to poach it,” said Bonnie Glaser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank. “I don’t think that Palau is in jeopardy at the moment, but the visit is another signal of US support for Taiwan and its retention of its 15 remaining allies.”

Elizabeth Larus of the University of Mary Washington said Biden had come out with a “firmer posture” on China than most experts had expected, but had also benefited from Trump’s precedent. “Some of the heavy lifting on Taiwan has already been done for him.”

Derek Grossman of the Rand Corporation said: “The thought was that the Biden administration would come in and go a little bit quiet on Taiwan and try to reach some kind of ‘reset’ with Beijing. That has not happened.”

The second person familiar with the shift in policy stressed that while Biden would not return to pre-Trump contact guidelines, there would still be limits, including on displaying the Taiwanese flag at any meetings. “Anything related to sovereignty is off-limits,” the person added.

Blinken recently described Taiwan as a “country” in congressional testimony, even though the US has a “One-China policy” under which it recognises Beijing as the sole government of China.

Shelley Rigger, a Taiwan expert at Davidson College, said: “Blinken is very professional and I don’t think they are shooting from the cuff, [so] it is potentially more significant and more of an effort to say to China that we’re not just going to use your vocabulary.”

Asked if the Biden administration had decided to refer to Taiwan as a country, the state department said the US would continue to engage with Taiwan “consistent with our longstanding ‘One-China policy’”.

Over the past two months, the US has also sailed warships through the Taiwan Strait. The Pentagon also conducted a rare dual aircraft carrier exercise in the South China Sea. Last week, the US and Taiwan signed an agreement to increase co-operation between their coastguards.

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