Taiwan Needs Allies, Not Partisans

Pompeo has set Taiwan up for repercussions without taking any responsibility himself.

Taiwan's flag is seen on the tower of the Presidential Office in Taipei on Jan. 13.
Taiwan's flag is seen on the tower of the Presidential Office in Taipei on Jan. 13. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

On Jan. 9, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo abruptly announced that the United States would eliminate the decades-long self-imposed contact guidelines set forth by the State Department on how U.S. officials and service members engage with counterparts in Taiwan. The order, broadly speaking, allows for fewer restrictions across the executive branch and greater reciprocal access to certain facilities, as well as changes around the terminology permitted to describe Taiwan and its representatives.

This announcement came three days after Pompeo made public that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft would soon be visiting Taiwan. He highlighted the trip in what was essentially a footnote to a press release condemning China for arrests in Hong Kong. That confirmed the suspicion of many Taiwan analysts that this administration views the island primarily as a card to play against the People’s Republic of China and as a convenient foil to it—or the “free China” per Pompeo’s press release.

The overturning of the contact guidelines is the most recent step in an increasingly aggressive last-minute effort by the Trump administration to set precedents on how Washington interacts with Taipei, which are being pushed alongside an ever assertive and concerted stance against Beijing. The decision to pursue these actions a little under two weeks from the start of the incoming Biden administration is an overt politicization of what has long been a bipartisan issue: support for Taiwan. In doing so, the Trump administration is undercutting the very foundations that this support is grounded on—potentially to Taiwan’s detriment.

It is important to flag that, like many of this administration’s moves toward Taiwan, the removal of the contact guidelines does not violate the “One China” policy but rather pushes against the outermost bounds of it. The language in the official announcement is itself notable. Pompeo moves away from the U.S. government norm of describing official counterparts in Taipei as “Taiwan” adjective or “Taiwans” noun, using instead “Taiwanese”—which Washington believed held certain sensitivities—apparently in line with his voiding of relevant sections in the Foreign Affairs Manual or Foreign Affairs Handbooks. Nonetheless, he stresses the unofficiality of the relationship and the continued role of the nonprofit American Institute in Taiwan.

Fundamentally, however, the crux of the issue isn’t with the policy side of Pompeo’s announcement. There have long been calls from both sides of the aisle on the need for a comprehensive Taiwan policy review, including on terms of engagement. The removal of the guidelines allows for greater parity, respect, and dignity in engagements with Taiwan—one that is assuredly overdue. The issue lies in the politics behind it, of attempting to bind the next administration’s hands on Taiwan policy, otherwise setting up incoming leadership to easy criticisms of inaction. Timing and optics matter, especially on issues as sensitive as this.

The Biden administration can and should continue advancing a meaningful relationship with Taiwan—and the transition team is indicating that this will likely be the case—but these considerations should be made through careful deliberations and consultations with key stakeholders, not through a rushed weekend announcement tainted by broader motives to constrict the policy space for the next administration and to deliberately aggravate Beijing.

Pompeo’s decision also sets Taiwan up for repercussions from China while placing little weight on assessing how U.S. actions affect Taiwan, which frequently bears the brunt of backlashes from Beijing’s anger at developments in U.S.-Taiwan relations. With a week left in his tenure, it appears that Pompeo is willing to let Taiwan take the hit to score political points without having to deal with any of the ramifications or devise any follow-on support. U.S. interests around Taiwan include ensuring its security and resiliency, and while this move has largely been lauded in Taiwan, it raises the question of whether now was an optimal time to pursue this policy change, as opposed to at an earlier or later time to ensure certain safeguards.

U.S. Taiwan policy has been largely insulated from partisan whims, allowing for relative continuity and stability for the past four decades. In today’s hyperpartisan domestic environment, there is a real risk in associating support for Taiwan with a specific political party—particularly as the Republican Party grapples with its identity and the direction of its political future. This is even more the case given that Pompeo’s decision was made against the domestic backdrop of a deadly insurrection, spurred on by a president getting close to political bankruptcy. It also opens the door for greater distrust among interlocuters, which could obstruct avenues for deepening cooperation between the United States and Taiwan.

The backlash to the policy change is already garnering the effect Pompeo wanted, a partisan and unpleasant one. Across policy discussion platforms, those who question the timing and intent of the move—again, not the substance itself—are being cast as “soft on China” or “having fallen victim to China’s discourse control,” lazy accusations that overlook not only the diversity of viewpoints across the Democratic Party but also the very real repercussions for Taiwan discussed above. On the opposite end of the spectrum, proponents for greater U.S. restraint in foreign policy and those who place undue emphasis on the merits of cooperation with China are also leveraging Saturday’s announcement for their own political goals—as justification for a hard reset in the U.S.-China relationship and a course reversal on Taiwan, which they view solely as an impediment to the advancement of bilateral relations between Washington and Beijing. The next administration will now be caught in the middle—just as Taiwan itself is.

Jessica Drun is a Washington, D.C.-based Taiwan and China analyst. The views expressed here are her own.