By Joseph Cummins
THE US secretary of state has lifted restrictions on diplomacy with Taiwan in a move that may further enrage China over American foreign policy with the island.
Mike Pompeo said on Saturday that the administration would lift “self-imposed” restrictions that have governed where officials can meet and how they correspond just days before the Biden administration takes power.
President Trump has sought to build relationships with the Chinese-claimed island and signed the Taiwan Assurance Act into law on 27 December, promising a unilateral backing of its self-defence capabilities and financial, if not military, support if China moves on Taiwan.
President of the US-Taiwan Business Council, Rupert Hammond-Chambers, told Redaction Politics: “People will say that is a snap decision that was designed to provoke China and inhibit the incoming administration. The reality is that this has been in the making for 18 months.
“For the first time in my career, we have China on the back foot. I am worried about Mr Biden’s policy on China and that there will be a retraction [from Taiwan].”
Mr Hammond-Chambers said that there have been no officials on North-East Asia instated at any level as part of the transition to the new administration.
He said that he has “heard nothing” on Mr Biden’s policy in Asia and that this is causing unease among America’s official allies in the region, including Japan.
“Taiwan is the canary in the coal mine in that regard,” he said.
Japan’s deputy defence minister, Yasuhide Nakayama, called the safety of Taiwan a “red line” and urged Mr Biden to “be strong” in the face of aggressive Chinese policy, following the same line as the outgoing president.
Mr Nakayama said: “We are concerned China will expand its aggressive stance into areas other than Hong Kong. I think one of the next targets, or what everyone is worried about, is Taiwan.
“So far, I haven’t yet seen a clear policy or an announcement on Taiwan from Joe Biden. I would like to hear it quickly, then we can prepare our response in accordance.”
Japan’s diplomacy with Taiwan has improved since the Taiwanese-nationalist Democratic People’s Party, DPP, took power in 2016.
But Tokyo does not support Taiwanese sovereignty and has been of little assistance to Taipei for some time.
In November last year, Japan allied with China in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, RCEP, from which Taiwan is excluded, and their partnership in the East Asian economic system is growing.
Professor Ian Inkster, research associate at the SOAS Centre of Taiwan Studies, told Redaction Politics: “It would be startling if China worries too much about Japanese critique on Taiwan.
“The two systems [of Japan and China] are becoming closer and Taiwan remains relatively small fish in their waters.
“At best Japan will be part of a chorus amongst the comity of nations – the ‘red-line’ has no particular weight.”
Japan is a non-militarised country by treaty, although the position is shifting, and has a single official defence ally in Washington.
The use of Taiwan as a political rubric is hoped to prompt Mr Biden to be more forthcoming with political support for East Asian countries.
But experts believe that Mr Biden’s policy will fall short of provocation of mainland China and Mr Trump’s open empowerment of Taiwanese militarisation.
Since May 2019, the Trump administration has approved several arms deals with Taiwan, including anti-ship cruise missiles and marine drones.
DPP President, Tsai Ing-wen, is overseeing a major overhaul of Taiwan’s military and the deals add to existing “carrier killer” stealth corvette ships.
Professor Inkster said: “Compared to the [West’s history of foreign policy] China is fairly calm and mild, the US is grim, and Biden has yet to be tested.
“The Assurance Act has little content besides advantaging US arms sales to Taiwan.
“I am not impressed with Biden to date. He would do best to attempt to penetrate East Asia fast, post-covid, as positively and smoothly as possible if there are gains to be made – but the US is a relatively minor player.
“He may continue in the thuggish US vein to drive wedges between Japan and China or China and Europe.”
Due to the trade and military significance of the Taiwan Strait, and Taiwan’s resonance in Western media as a democracy, the island is the subject of much global rhetoric, although Beijing maintains that the island is a part of China.
China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Zhao Lijian, told a news conference: “China firmly opposes US’ Taiwan Assurance Act, and the US should stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.”
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