Taiwan Seeks Closer US Ties After Trump Lifts Limits, China Protests

Taiwan's de facto representation in the United States has told Newsweek the self-ruling island seeks closer ties to a country that provides it with military assistance, but with which it has no official relations.

But China has voiced strong opposition to the continued strengthening of bonds between Taipei and Washington, where the waning days of the Trump administration have seen a growing rapprochement.

With Trump silenced by social media companies over his alleged complicity in a deadly riot that stormed the Capitol Building last Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced a series of dramatic foreign policy decisions targeting countries and entities considered adversaries by the Trump administration.

At the top of Pompeo's list is China, which is set to eclipse the U.S. as the world's largest economy, a move that has been accelerated by the very different impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on each country.

With its rising military, diplomatic and technological power, the Trump administration has viewed the ruling Chinese Communist Party as an ideological and existential threat. After four years of heightened tensions and tit-for-tat measures, Pompeo delivered one of Washington's most brazen affronts yet to Beijing over the weekend.

The top U.S. diplomat announced on Saturday the lifting of all "self-imposed restrictions" from the U.S. on its diplomacy with Taiwan, an autonomous entity since the Communist victory on the mainland in 1949. Nations have since steadily chosen Beijing as China's central authority, switching recognition from the Republic of China, Taiwan, to the People's Republic, especially since the opening of the Chinese economy in 1979, the same year the U.S. severed ties with Taiwan for China.

We welcome the State Department's move to 'lift self-imposed restrictions' and will continue to work closely with the U.S. government and the Congress to strengthen our already robust U.S.-Taiwan global partnership.
- the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York

The apparent regeneration of this relationship, which challenges U.S.-China agreements fundamental to the relationship between Washington and Beijing, were lauded by Taipei as a platform for even deeper cooperation.

"We welcome the State Department's move to 'lift self-imposed restrictions' and will continue to work closely with the U.S. government and the Congress to strengthen our already robust U.S.-Taiwan global partnership," the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York told Newsweek.

But such actions have consequences, as the Taiwanese office noted, and tensions remain high across the disputed Taiwan Strait.

"Improved U.S.-Taiwan relations are conducive to regional stability and prosperity," the office added. "Every time there's a positive movement, Beijing reacts irrationally, including military intimidation or inflammatory rhetoric. Such behaviors are far from helpful for peace and security across the strait and in the region."

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A People's Liberation Army Eastern Theater Command warship conducts exercises in January 2021. The command contains the frontline forces facing self-ruling Taiwan, which China has vowed reunify with the mainland through diplomacy or military action. Eastern Theater Command/Chinese People's Liberation Army

Washington and Taipei swiftly displayed the impact of their latest arrangement. U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands Peter Hoekstra hosted Taiwan's representative there Chen Hsing-hsing, and Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper met with Taiwan's representative to the U.S. Hsiao Bi-khim on Monday.

Beijing reacted with indignation. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian called on Washington to abide by the agreements affirming U.S. recognition of "the Government of the People's Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China," and insisted that it maintain only "unofficial relations" with the people of Taiwan.

"It is the solemn pledge of the U.S. side not to have official interactions with the Taiwan region," Zhao reiterated on Tuesday in comments sent to Newsweek by the Chinese embassy in Washington. "It should honor its commitment and not misinterpret or deviate from it under any pretext."

In addition to the one-China principle and the three China-U.S. joint communiqués adopted between 1972 and 1982, Zhao urged the U.S. to "stop manipulating Taiwan-related issues and stop going further down the wrong and dangerous path."

Zhu Fenglian, a spokesperson for China's Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, also beseeched Washington to adhere to its commitments on relations. Zhu vowed his country would "take resolute and effective measures to counter any Taiwan-U.S. collusion."

"Any violation of this commitment seriously violates the basic norms of international relations and is illegal and invalid," he argued, calling Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party "pawns for external forces" and warning that "relying on the United States for independence will only bring serious disasters to the people on the island."

People's Liberation Army forces, meanwhile, continue to fly through the Taiwan-claimed Air Defense Identification Zone on a near-daily basis, according to the Taiwan National Defense Ministry. The latest flight Tuesday was conducted by three different Y-8 models—one suited for anti-submarine warfare, one designed for electronic warfare and one tasked with tactical reconnaissance.

"Airborne-alert sorties had been tasked, radio warnings issued and air defense missile systems deployed to monitor the activity," the Taiwanese ministry said in an incident report.

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A map published by the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense shows what is purported to be the flight paths of three People's Liberation Army Y-8 variants across the southwestern edge of the Taiwan-claimed Air Identification Zone on January 12. Both Beijing and Taipei claim sovereignty over the entirety of Chinese territory, including airspace and surrounding waters such as the Taiwan Strait. Republic of China Ministry of National Defense

In a written statement sent to Newsweek, Taiwan's General Shih Shun said his forces are "aware of all PLA activities through the effective use of orchestrated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems."

He argued that the Taiwanese military has the capacity to respond with "effective measures" if called upon.

The People's Liberation Army Navy Eastern Theater Command also recently carried out a four-day exercise involving guided-missile destroyers Taiyuan, Hangzhou, Taizhou and the frigate Zhoushan.

Chinese diplomatic and military officials have repeatedly warned their counterparts in the U.S. and Taiwan against further collaboration it views as disruptive to the official pledge by the People's Republic to unify the island with the mainland by negotiations or force, if necessary.

These threats linger as the Trump administration canceled an unprecedented visit to Taiwan from U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft, citing responsibilities related to the transition process. She was set to meet Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, as earlier confirmed to Newsweek by the Taiwan Foreign Ministry.

The vast majority of U.S. military interactions with the PLA, not just in the South China Sea but throughout the region, are safe and in accordance with international norms.
- U.S. Navy Spokesperson

Still, the U.S. Navy noted there has been no substantial escalation in the region. This included the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where the People's Liberation Army is establishing bases on islands also claimed by Southeast Asian states, and the East China Sea, where Chinese vessels have stepped up challenges around a Japan-controlled set of islands off Chinese and Taiwanese shores.

"The vast majority of U.S. military interactions with the PLA, not just in the South China Sea but throughout the region, are safe and in accordance with international norms," a U.S. Navy spokesperson told Newsweek. "Attempts to misconstrue or sensationalize our operations are irresponsible and counterproductive."

The U.S. military has largely ignored cautioning from China and defended its movement through the contested region.

"The U.S. has a persistent military presence and routinely operates throughout the Indo-Pacific, including the waters and airspace surrounding the East China Sea and South China Sea, just as we have for more than a century," the Navy spokesperson said. "The U.S. will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows in accordance with international norms and our agreements."

Reinforcing this principle are the U.S.' Quadrilateral Security Dialogue partners Australia, India and Japan, as well as close ally Canada, all of whom joined Tuesday for anti-submarine warfare exercise Sea Dragon in the waters off the U.S. territory of Guam.

The convergence of U.S.-aligned powers in the Asia-Pacific and a more assertive Pentagon approach has fueled frictions in the region.

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This picture taken on October 20, 2020 show tourists visiting the anti-landing spikes on the coast of Kinmen, the front line islands of Taiwan. The U.S. has increased political support and military aid to Taiwan under President Donald Trump, one of several hardline U.S. policies viewed as antagonistic by China. SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

The South China Sea Probing Initiative foresees potential trouble ahead. The China-based think tank, composed of international experts, told Newsweek after U.S. warships conducted a rare double crossing of the Taiwan Strait last month "that the risk of conflict is rising."

The group saw a potential path forward for dialing down the temperature between the world's top two powers, but saw little chance of this happening on the current trajectory of their strained relations.

"The US needs: 1) to refrain from "taking sides" on disputed issues and maintain necessary policy balance; 2) to avoid extreme moves on the front line," the regional monitor said. "However, under the backdrop of the great power competition, both mentioned above are hard to be seen."

After four years of worsening relations over trade, human rights issues and geopolitical flashpoints, how U.S.-China ties would evolve under the Biden administration is as yet unclear. The former president-elect has, however, signaled a more balanced and multilateral approach.

A transition official involved in Biden's transition team told Newsweek that the president-elect believed "American support for Taiwan must remain strong, principled, and bipartisan, and he plans to ensure that." The incoming leader would seek "a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan," the transition official said.

At the same time, the official suggested that this relationship would remain in line with existing commitments to both Taiwan and China.

"As the President-elect made clear on the campaign trail, he is committed to the Taiwan Relations Act, which he voted for as a U.S. Senator, and to our one-China policy," the transition official said.