Pompeo’s 11th Hour Change in Taiwan Policy Does Taipei No Favors

Photo: DANIEL SHIH/AFP via Getty Images
Written by 
January 15, 2021

We have spent the better parts of our careers working to strengthen U.S. support for Taiwan based on the firm conviction that Taiwan’s democracy is a treasured development for the United States; that Taiwan’s security is critical for the First Island Chain, Japan, and the broader Asia-Pacific; and that U.S. economic integration with Taiwan will strengthen our technological competitiveness vis-à-vis China. However, we were skeptical why Secretary of State Pompeo announced in the 11th hour that all previous rules governing unofficial U.S. interaction with Taiwan are suddenly “null and void”—essentially signaling that Taiwan can expect the full range of diplomatic treatment it enjoyed before normalization with Beijing in 1979. This is not because we oppose expanding unofficial interactions with Taiwan, but because of the capricious and dubious way this decision was unveiled.

In October, we published the findings of a bipartisan task force on U.S. relations with Taiwan we co-chaired that argued, “while symbolic gestures are sometimes useful to signal U.S. commitment and resolve, U.S. policy toward Taiwan should comprise substantive actions that meaningfully enhance Taiwan’s security, stability, and prosperity” and that those policies “should be developed and implemented in the context of the full range of its foreign policy and national security objectives in the Indo-Pacific.” In our view the outgoing administration’s decision does not meet those standards by three counts.

First, a decision to eliminate a set of policies that were carefully calibrated by Republican and Democratic administrations over four-plus decades and that have significant geopolitical implications should be based on deliberate consideration of the objectives being served and the risks and benefits involved, coordinated with Congress and allies, and established for that administration itself to administer over the coming years. Such a major shift in policy should not be dropped on a Saturday morning by an outgoing administration mired in the worst crisis of democracy in our nation’s modern history—effectively forcing the next administration to deal with a fait accompli. This only incentivizes Beijing to put even greater pressure on the new administration to place stricter restrictions on Taiwan. And if the issue was so necessary, why wait until the last minute to announce the change? The Trump administration is fond of saying that the U.S.-Taiwan relationship has never been better. There is merit in that statement. So what was the rush in doing this now, particularly since many changes to these guidelines have and can be made quietly? We cannot think of an earlier case where an outgoing administration deliberately burdened its successor with a problem in China policy this way.

Second, at a time when Taiwan needs and deserves bipartisan support, this decision appears intended to dare the incoming Biden administration to reverse it—essentially allowing Republicans on the Hill and aspiring presidential candidates to claim they are the true defenders of democratic Taiwan and opponents of communist China. But when Taiwan policy has been politicized in the past and support for Taiwan set up as a political litmus test, bilateral relations have always suffered. This is something neither the United States nor Taiwan can afford at a time when increasing Chinese hubris and coercion require us and our allies to be in lock step with Taipei.

Finally, this move does little to compensate for the failings in U.S. policy toward Asia over the past four years that have left Taiwan more vulnerable. Withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership deprived Taiwan of its best chance for a multilateral trade agreement that would have reduced dependence on China for economic growth. Gratuitous fights with Europe complicated the diplomatic work of unifying democracies in support of Taiwan as it came under pressure from Beijing. It goes without saying that the president’s own egregious behavior has weakened the credibility of the United States as a champion of the democratic norms Taiwan has established for itself and as a model for the rest of Asia. The outgoing administration deserves credit for advancing defense relations with Japan and pushing back against China militarily—but Taiwan’s liberal democracy can only survive in an ecosystem of rules and norms that the administration has badly damaged. This last-minute move will not change any of that.

In our task force report we urged the incoming administration to support Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, pursue new trade agreements and closer diplomatic coordination with other U.S. allies on Taiwan’s behalf, and strengthen defense capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. Those are still the pillars of a U.S. policy toward Taiwan that serves the interests of the United States and the security and prosperity of 23 million dynamic, freedom-loving Taiwan citizens. The Biden administration should avoid taking the political bait left by the outgoing administration or responding to the inevitable pressure from Beijing. Instead, the new administration should undertake its own comprehensive strategic review of Taiwan policy as part of a broader approach to restoring American leadership in Asia based on reinvigorated alliances and partnerships and commitment to democratic norms. That strategic review can and should include relaxation of the rules governing unofficial relations with Taiwan when and where those changes serve our interests and contribute to substantive support for Taipei. Dropping such policy changes on the way out the door is not the way to proceed.

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and director of Asian Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at CSIS. Richard Bush is a nonresident senior fellow in the Center for East Asia Policy Studies (CEAP) at the Brookings Institution.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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