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Trump's provocative moves on Taiwan complicate U.S.-China relations in Biden era

Then-Vice President Joe Biden meets President Xi Jinping in Washington in 2013 (Photo released by Chinese embassy)


Global Business Journalism reporter

Chinese state media called it "the final madness" of the Trump administration. The United States on Jan. 9 lifted all restrictions on diplomatic contacts with Taiwanese authorities less than two weeks before the transition of power from defeated President Donald Trump to his successor, Joe Biden. To underscore the diplomatic shift, Trump's ambassador to the Netherlands hosted Taiwan's representative to that country at the U.S. embassy on Jan. 11 in the first publicly announced visit to a U.S. government office since 1979, when the U.S. broke off formal diplomatic relations with the self-governing island that China claims as its own sovereign territory.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the most vocal China critic to run the State Department since John Foster Dulles in the 1950s, argued that the U.S. government had imposed these restrictions “unilaterally” with its recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1979 and thereby could unilaterally restore high-level meetings between American and Taiwanese authorities.

“Taiwan is a vibrant democracy and a reliable partner of the U.S.,” Pompeo said in a statement harshly critical of American career diplomats. “The U.S.-Taiwan relationship need not, and should not, be shackled by self-imposed restrictions of our permanent bureaucracy."

Trump's strengthened alliance with Taiwan and increasing tension with China placed the new U.S. administration in a difficult position for the reestablishment of more civil relations with Beijing.

“It may take four years of Biden’s administration or even more to get back to civility where the China-U.S. relations were before 2016,” said Jon Taylor, professor of political science and chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Taiwanese officials welcomed the diplomatic insult to Beijing, even welcoming an aborted last-minute trip to Taipei by the United Nations, Kelly Craft.

“The Taiwan-U.S. relations have been promoted to a global partnership,” Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu said, according to Reuters.

In the final months of Trump’s presidency, his administration took actions called provocative by foreign policy analysts to challenge the Chinese government on issues ranging from technology to human rights. A strong reaction from Beijing may also underlie U.S. officials’ decision to cancel envoys’ trips to Taiwan and Europe. China's authorities had promised to respond with “decisive measures” to any American move undermining China's self-described “core” interests. In times of increasing stress, historical experience shows China may increase its military presence near Taiwan or put pressure on Taiwan's remaining diplomatic partners in 15 countries around the world.

The Chinese government has expressed its willingness to cooperate with the new U.S. administration but has warned Biden about interfering in domestic Chinese matters, which to Beijing includes Taiwan.

“With Joe Biden there maybe be softening of the tone from the White House in some places, but in terms of economic growth, technologies, security competition there will be a lot of competition,” said Liu Yunyun, Beijing Review Associate Executive Editor. "We don't want that but, if we are forced into the situation of a great power competition, we have to deal with it."

Unlike Trump and Pompeo, Taylor believes that the elected president will likely reiterate the "One China" policy and return to the Barack Obama administration's approach toward Beijing that wasn't confrontational and recognized China as a competitor, not a rival.

The U.S. has no formal embassy in Taipei but has remained a military and economic partner of the government. Under Trump, American support of Taiwan increased significantly as the former president signed into law an act that required wider U.S. support for Taiwan internationally, prompting denunciations by Chinese officials.

Both American political parties have taken strong positions against the Chinese government’s Taiwan policy and have accused Beijing of violating human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespeople have rejected these charges as unwarranted interference in Chinese domestic concerns. Because of the strong bipartisan agreement in Washington, international diplomatic analysts predict that the new U.S. administration will likely stick to existing policies on Taiwan to deter China from reclaiming the islands governed from Taipei by force.

After November's presidential election Washington approved the “communication system” deal to enable better defensive capability for the islands. This fourth U.S.-Taiwan arms sale in 2020 totaled $5.1 billion.

“If Biden is able to stop arms transaction between the U.S. and Taiwan, that will help China-U.S. relations,” said Taylor.

Trump's lame-duck diplomatic actions are reminiscent of the situation in December 2016, when then-President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for 2016 U.S. election hacking just before he was succeeded by Trump, who considered Russian leader Vladimir Putin a close personal friend.

Despite his warm words for Putin, Trump did not significantly improve relations with Russia after the harshly negative shift during the Obama years. Many experts hope Biden will restore a period of international dialogue, arguing that lack of cooperation between major powers disrupts the whole international system.

“China and America desperately need to create rules to help manage the rapidly evolving era of superpowers’ competition,” said Taylor. "Just now both see rules as things to break."

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