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Pompeo Shakes Up Long-Standing Rules For U.S.-Taiwan Relations


Over the weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo changed how American officials can interact with Taiwan. For years, the U.S. has had only unofficial relations with the island, and a set of arcane guidelines helped keep it that way. But in one of his final acts in office, Pompeo announced he is tossing out that rulebook. NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch explains.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: In December 1978, President Jimmy Carter went on TV to make a momentous announcement.


JIMMY CARTER: Good evening. I would like to read a joint communique, which is being simultaneously issued in Peking at this very moment.

RUWITCH: The U.S. was recognizing the communist authorities in Beijing as the sole government of China and cutting formal relations with Taipei. It was a recognition of reality, Carter said. But as part of the deal, Washington didn't totally abandon Taiwan.


CARTER: Within this context, the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.

RUWITCH: To make it work, a set of guidelines evolved called contact guidance. Their aim was to help American officials navigate interactions with the Taiwanese while appropriately reflecting the unofficial nature of the relationship. Susan Thornton was the State Department's top diplomat for East Asia and the Pacific before retiring in 2018.

SUSAN THORNTON: Taiwan status and the U.S. policy on Taiwan and all of that is incredibly confusing and arcane for people. And they don't generally want to make mistakes that can cause a, you know, international incident.

RUWITCH: The guidance covered things like who in the U.S. government needed approval to travel to Taiwan and where meetings with Taiwanese officials could take place. But with less than two weeks left in Trump's term, Pompeo said the rules were an attempt to appease China. Already, the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands tweeted that he hosted Taiwan's representative for a meeting, something that wouldn't have happened before.

EVAN MEDEIROS: So the big question you have to ask is, why is Pompeo doing this now? Why do it two weeks before the inauguration?

RUWITCH: Evan Medeiros teaches at Georgetown University and was senior Asia director at the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

MEDEIROS: And I think the answer is that this is meant to be a trap.

RUWITCH: A trap because if President-elect Joe Biden leaves the policy in place, it'll be a substantial source of tension with Beijing. Relations between the U.S. and China have been in a downward spiral for the past couple of years. If Biden reverses Pompeo's decision...

MEDEIROS: Then he creates a political vulnerability that he's being, you know, soft on China, et cetera.

RUWITCH: That opens him up to attack from the Republican Party, which has made China a centerpiece of its policy rhetoric. But Richard Bush, a Taiwan expert with the Brookings Institution, says there may be mitigating factors.

RICHARD BUSH: We're in a situation where the head of the Republican Party has incited violence against his own government. We're in a Republican Party that could not hold on to two Senate seats in Georgia. The Republican attacks could probably be deflected.


ZHAO LIJIAN: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: China's foreign ministry spokesman urged the U.S. to abide by its promises, including those in the communique that Carter read out on TV. Susan Thornton, the former diplomat, says Beijing is showing restraint while it waits Trump out.

THORNTON: They would like to stabilize things, but they probably have a pretty jaundiced view of where the U.S. wants to take all of this.

RUWITCH: And it's not clear yet just how much of Trump's China policy Biden is prepared to change.

John Ruwitch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGITALISM'S "MIRAGE [PART ONE]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.