The United States is ending restrictions on official contacts with Taiwan, Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo said on Saturday, a move that Taipei praised as an end to “decades of discrimination.”
Pompeo said the “complex internal restrictions” for diplomats, service members and other contacts with Taipei had been introduced “in an attempt to appease the communist regime in Beijing.”
Pompeo added: “No more.”
The explanation may be more symbolic than substantive, but it still seems certain to anger China, which sees Taiwan as its own territory.
The Taiwanese government welcomed the move.
“Decades of discrimination, removed,” tweeted Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s diplomatic envoy to the states. “A huge day in our bilateral relationship. I will cherish every opportunity.”
Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said he was grateful Pompeo had lifted “restrictions that unnecessarily limited our commitment”.
“The closer partnership between Taiwan and the United States is based on our common values, common interests and unwavering belief in freedom and democracy,” he added.
It comes in the last weeks of the Donald Trump administration, and in a time of already rising tensions between Beijing and both Washington and Taipei.
It was not clear what the change would mean in practice, with Pompeo saying that executive agency communication with Taiwan will be handled by the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which is owned by the US government and acts as the de facto embassy.
The shift comes after a year of growing tensions between the United States and China.
Fighting over the envoy’s visit
Trump has sent several senior officials to Taipei over the past year when he clashed with China on a range of issues, from its handling of the coronavirus pandemic to trade, security and human rights disputes.
Pompeo’s statement also came just two days after China warned the United States that it would pay a “high price” if UN Ambassador Kelly Craft did well on plans to travel to Taiwan on Wednesday.
Beijing opposes all diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and has tried to keep the democratic island isolated on the world stage.
Crafts’ planned three-day visit comes just one week before Joe Biden’s inauguration as President of the United States, which will add to a series of diplomatic headaches for the incoming government.
“China strongly urges the United States to stop its insane provocation, stop creating new difficulties for China – US relations … and stop going further in the wrong direction,” the Chinese mission told the UN in a statement in response to Crafts’ journey.
A US statement said Crafts’ visit, which Taiwan officially welcomed, would “strengthen the US government’s strong and ongoing support for Taiwan’s international space.”
The AIT was founded in 1979 when the United States extended diplomatic recognition to China due to a historic agreement that called for an end to the formal recognition of Taiwan.
But Washington remains a strong ally in Taipei and is bound by Congress to sell weapons for self-defense. It opposes any action to change Taiwan’s current status by force.
Military tensions between China and Taiwan have risen sharply over the past year, reaching their worst since the mid-1990s, some analysts say.
Chinese jets made a record 380 intrusions into Taiwan’s defense zone last year, a military official said Tuesday.
Beijing’s enmity has increased dramatically since Tsai Ing-wen won the 2016 Taiwan presidential election; she rejects Beijing’s insistence that the island is part of “a China”.