US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo puts on his mask after speaking to the press at the US State Department in Washington DC on November 24, 2020. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb/Pool

In one of his final acts as US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo has managed to enrage Beijing and delight Taipei. “No more,” the outgoing Pompeo declared over the weekend, as he abruptly announced the lifting of age-old restrictions on US high-level diplomatic visits to Taiwan. 

“Today I am announcing that I am lifting all of these self-imposed restrictions,” he said in what was most likely one of his last moves as America’s top diplomat amid what some have termed a “golden age” in US-Taiwan relations under Donald Trump’s administration.

Likely eying his own presidential bid in 2024, Pompeo called for overhauling bilateral relations since “the US-Taiwan relationship need not, and should not, be shackled by self-imposed restrictions of our permanent bureaucracy.”

The unprecedented move will also significantly constrain the incoming Joseph Biden administration’s options on cross-strait relations and affect its overall China policy.

Pompeo’s announcement predictably provoked outrage in Beijing, with major Chinese state media outlets lambasting the top diplomat for “stoking unwarranted confrontations” and describing his act as “a cowardly act of sabotage” of the incoming Democratic president later this month.

“The Trump administration, in its continuing efforts to burn the house down before leaving office, has crossed a dangerous red line with China days before incoming President Joe Biden takes office,” read a commentary on leading Chinese English television channel station CGTN.

Portraying Taiwan as “a vibrant democracy and reliable partner of the United States,” Pompeo condemned “complex internal restrictions to regulate our diplomats, service members, and other officials’ interactions with their Taiwanese counterparts” as “an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing.”

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wan and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a collage photo. Image: Facebook

‘Null and void’

He declared all pre-existing “contact guidelines” between senior American executive officials and their Taiwanese counterparts as “null and void.”

Officials in Taipei were ecstatic, with Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang telling reporters: “We are expressing our gratitude toward the US for speaking out and supporting Taiwan.”

“We also hope to interact actively with each other further, so that Taiwan could have an even bigger space in the international society,” the Taiwanese premier added.

Over Twitter, the US-educated Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu personally thanked Pompeo, describing the move as an expression of solidarity between two democracies against an authoritarian China.

“I’m grateful to @SecPompeo & @StateDept for lifting restrictions unnecessarily limiting our engagements these past years,” Taiwan’s top diplomat said on Twitter.

The US State Department, however, was quick to shut down speculation, especially in China, of an 11th-hour historic visit by the US Secretary of State to Taiwan.

In a commentary, state-mouthpiece Chinese tabloid the Global Times warned of “overwhelming” retribution and “war” if Pompeo pushed ahead with a visit to the self-governing island, which Beijing considers a renegade province that has to be incorporated in the future by all means necessary.

“PLA fighter planes will fly over Taiwan immediately, declaring China’s sovereignty over Taiwan island in an unprecedented way,” declared the Global Times in one of its latest incendiary commentaries.

“If Taiwan and the United States dare to go ahead with such provocations, it is very likely to trigger a war. We will fundamentally punish the Taiwan authorities who cooperate with Pompeo’s performance,” it continued.

Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers marching with their bayonettes during a military parade. Photo: AFP/Stephen Shaver

‘Act responsibly’

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus quickly shut down the frenzy of speculation in Beijing, declaring over Twitter: “There are no plans to travel to #Taiwan this week but we will continue our consistent support for Taiwan as a successful market economy, vibrant democracy, and force for good in the world.”

“The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] must act responsibly and stop believing the lies in their own propaganda. Their nervous panic diplomacy is unwarranted and dangerous,” the State Department spokesman shot back, accusing Chinese media of inflaming tensions.

As shocking as it seemed, Pompeo’s latest policy statement was far from surprising. In fact, it was consistent with the Trump administration’s growing support for Taiwan as a democratic bulwark against China.

Last year alone, the US cleared the sale of up to US$5 billion worth of weapons to Taiwan, including the $280 million Field Information Communications System (FICS), which will dramatically enhance the island nation’s ability to coordinate its military activities and forestall electronic warfare from China.

As many as 11 arms sales packages were approved under Trump’s watch, including the sale of strategic weapons such as the AGM-84H standoff land attack missile, expanded response (SLAM-ER) missiles and MQ-9B remotely piloted aircraft (RPA).

Taiwan even managed to secure a huge $62 billion F-16 fighter jet deal, which China has reportedly identified as a “red line.”

Months earlier, the US Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command’s top intelligence official, Rear Admiral Michael Studeman, made an unannounced visit to Taiwan amid rapidly burgeoning defense ties.

Top officials including recently-resigned Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger played a key role in overseeing the “golden age” in bilateral relations, culminating in the historic visit by US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to Taiwan last year.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (2nd R) gestures to a US official (L) as US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar (R) and director of the American of Institute in Taiwan Brent Christensen (2nd L) look on during their visit to the Presidential Office in Taipei, August 10, 2020. Photo by Pei Chen/Pool/AFP

More continuity than change

The Trump administration’s Taiwan policy builds on a robust bipartisan consensus, which is best reflected in the Taiwan Travel Act of 2018, which expresses “the sense of Congress that the United States Government should encourage visits between officials from the United States and Taiwan at all levels.”

This comes on top of the Taiwan Assurance Act, passed in December, which aims “to deepen and expand US-Taiwan relations”, regularize arms sales and transfers, and support Taiwan’s participation in international bodies.

The act also calls on the US government to, among other things, review existing guidelines on diplomatic exchanges with Taiwan within a 180 days frame. Pompeo effectively rushed the review process to pre-empt and bind the incoming Biden administration’s policy on cross-strait relations.

Top Biden advisors such as Kurt Campbell, a former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, recently indicated more continuity than change, since “there is a broad group of people across the political aisle that understand the profound strategic significance and our strategic interests in maintaining a strong relationship with Taiwan.”

But Beijing is clearly hoping that Biden will revisit Trump’s policies as part of a broader strategic reset. “China is waiting for Biden’s inauguration,” a source close to China’s People’s Liberation Army told the South China Morning Post.