From New Guidelines for U.S. Government Interactions with Taiwan Counterparts to ‘Unofficial’ U.S. Former Government Officials’ Visit to Taiwan|Fang-Yu Chen, Yao-Yuan Yeh, Austin Wang, Charles K.S. Wu

Published (HKT): 2021.04.18 09:41

Signs of progress in US-Taiwan relations have started to appear three months into the Biden administration. Last week, Secretary of State Blinken introduced new guidelines for interacting with Taiwan. This week, on behalf of the Biden administration, a delegation, including former Senator Chris Dodd, former Deputy Secretaries Richard Armitage, and James Steinberg, is now visiting Taiwan.

Before his departure, Secretary Pompeo announced removing all “internal rules” in the State Department for interactions with Taiwan. Many in the policy circle criticized such a decision as too hasty and argued that such changes should take place only after Congress has passed relevant legislation or resolutions in support of these changes. However, just one day before the 42nd year of the effective day of the Taiwan Relations Act, Blinken remarked that the new guidelines encourage “engagement with Taiwan counterparts.” He also stressed that the U.S. considers Taiwan as important security and economic partner. The new rules are intended to “deepening unofficial relationship” between the U.S. and Taiwan and provide guidelines for relevant parties.

The existing norm is that the content of the internal guidelines is not publicized. However, the media shows some of the new rules. According to the new guidelines, U.S. officials could meet their Taiwanese counterparts in federal buildings, and they could also enter embassies of Taiwan (Economic and Cultural Offices) to meet relevant officials from Taiwan. U.S. officials can attend events at the Twin Oaks and use U.S. governmental letterhead to communicate with Taiwanese authorities. This content essentially removes almost all the existing restrictions. However, since the U.S. has not recognized Taiwan’s sovereignty, certain restrictions remain, especially with respect to the One-China Policy. The rule points out that U.S. officials should not participate in activities that promote Taiwan’s sovereignty.

This new announcement could be interpreted as reviving certain restrictions after Pompeo abolished all of them. Thus, many in Taiwan are critical of Blinkens’ announcement. However, when Pompeo removed the restrictions, only about ten days were left in his term, and it is only natural that the new administration will review proposals from the previous one. As a result, what Blinken is doing now is to institutionalize interactions with Taiwan, especially on encouraging the public appearance of bilateral meetings. Going forward, we should see more examples of these public appearances, especially in each country’s embassies or governmental buildings.

In reality, since assuming office, both sides have met under the capacity of officials multiple times. For instance, Hsiao Bi-Khim, Taiwan’s top envoy to the U.S., has participated in the inauguration and entered the State Department for meetings and signing agreements in the capacity of Taiwan’s representative. Taiwan’s representatives in southern France and WTO have also joined meetings with American counterparts openly. Moreover, the U.S. representative in Palau joined the President of Palau in his recent visit to Taiwan, marking it the first time a present U.S. representative in a foreign country visiting Taiwan since the end of official ties.

The signals from Blinken are clear that they encourage U.S. embassies around the world to interact with Taiwan more frequently and U.S. officials to appear with Taiwanese counterparts publicly. Most importantly, each side could reciprocate the visit. Officials from Taiwan could visit federal agencies while U.S. representatives could visit embassies of Taiwan. Taken together, this change means that Blinken largely followed Pompeo in policy toward Taiwan, and his announcement has the effect of institutionalizing these policies.

It is worth noting that this announcement is based on the Taiwan Assurance Act, which relies on a consensus in Congress. This is also the first time this act is included in the framework of the One-China policy.

In the policy circle (or even administrative agencies) in the U.S., some would say that US-Taiwan relations should remain low-profile. Proponents of this idea contend that US-Taiwan relations would progress naturally without rapid changes of adjustments that could anger different parties. The blind spot in this argument is: China would always react strongly and negatively toward Taiwan no matter what Taiwan does. Thus, to alter such a viewpoint, a good way is to invite Congress to review relevant policies so Taiwan could receive more support in the policy world.

Trailing closely after this announcement of the new guidelines is the visit of the delegation to Taiwan. Although the members in this delegation do not contain current officials, it is rare to have delegations visiting Taiwan on behalf of the U.S. President. According to White House officials, this delegation is a signal of Biden’s commitment to Taiwan and its democracy.

Some would certainly argue that the U.S. should not impose any restriction on interacting with Taiwan, and both sides should also pursue official interactions. However, U.S. key foreign policy doctrines toward managing cross-Strait relations, such as the One-China policy and strategic ambiguity, are highly stable. This is a position that even Pompeo endorsed. As a result, for now, even if Taiwan could only maintain an unofficial relationship with the U.S., these actions already involve the highest officials of Taiwan. That is, in essence, the U.S. does not eschew interacting with Taiwan officially. To remove the unofficial nature of US-Taiwan relations would require the U.S. to abolish these critical doctrines in place for more than four decades. This is likely to happen in the future if US-China relations keep worsening.

As we have explained earlier, U.S. policy toward Taiwan and China will not change dramatically, but under a Democrat regime, US-Taiwan relations will become more low-profile. Half of this story is true. US-Taiwan relations are not muted; instead, both the State Department and the Department of Defense mention helping Taiwan very frequently. From Pompeo to Blinken, many policies have continued. For Taiwan, the goal is to stabilize relations with the U.S. and finds ways to deepen bilateral and even multilateral engagements.

(Fang-Yu Chen (chenfan6@msu.edu) is PhD in Political Science at Michigan State University. Twitter: @FangYu_80168

Yao-Yuan Yeh (yehy@stthom.edu) is Associate Professor of International Studies and Chair of the Department of International Studies and Modern Languages at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. Twitter: @yeh2sctw

Austin Wang (austin.wang@unlv.edu) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Twitter: @wearytolove

Charles K.S. Wu (wu721@purdue.edu) is PhD candidate of Political Science at Purdue University. Twitter: @kuanshengtwn)

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