‘Personal signal’: US’s Biden sends ex-officials to Taiwan

Visit marks the 42nd anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act as China continues what it calls ‘combat drills’ near the island.

United States President Joe Biden sent an unofficial delegation of former high-level officials to Taiwan on Wednesday in a signal of support for the democratic island, which China claims as its own.

Former Senator Chris Dodd and former Deputy Secretaries of State Richard Armitage and James Steinberg are expected to arrive in Taiwan on Wednesday afternoon, travelling at Biden’s request, in what a White House official called a “personal signal” of the president’s commitment to the island.

“Once again this visit demonstrates the firm relationship between Taiwan and the United States,” said Xavier Chang, the spokesman for Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.

The delegation will meet Tsai on Thursday.

Taiwan’s 23 million people live with the threat of invasion by China, which has not ruled out the use of force to take control of the island. Beijing has also sought to isolate Taiwan on the world stage and condemns efforts by other countries to maintain contact with the island.

On Wednesday, it said ongoing military exercises near Taiwan were “combat drills”. On Monday, 25 Chinese airforce aircraft entered the island’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ), the largest incursion reported by Taipei since China stepped up its activities after Tsai was first elected in 2016.

Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office claimed Taiwan’s government and alleged “separatists” were “colluding with external forces” and trying to undermine peace and stability.

“The People’s Liberation Army’s organising of actual combat exercises in the Taiwan Strait is necessary action to address the security situation in the Taiwan Strait and to safeguard national sovereignty,” spokesman Ma Xiaoguang said.

The US delegation is visiting Taiwan on the 42nd anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, which Biden backed when he was a senator.

The official told the Reuters news agency that the delegation was following “a longstanding bipartisan tradition” and that the visit – by three people known to be close to the president – was “a personal signal” from Biden, who took office in January.

“We are not even three months into the Biden administration and already we’ve seen a clear push to add greater depth and texture to the US-Taiwan relationship,” said Maggie Lewis, a professor at Seton Hall Law school who writes on Taiwan and China issues. “In the long-termed ‘robust unofficial’ relationship, increasing emphasis is being placed on the ‘robust’ part of that phrasing.”

Tensions across strait

The State Department said on Friday it was issuing new guidelines to enable US officials to meet more freely with officials from Taiwan. China responded by warning the US “not to play with fire”.

Former President Donald Trump angered China by sending several senior officials to Taiwan and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced days before the Trump presidency ended in January that he was lifting restrictions on contacts between US officials and their Taiwanese counterparts.

Taiwan is China’s most sensitive territorial issue and a main bone of contention with Washington, which is required by US law to provide the island with the means to defend itself.

“The United States is committed to engaging Taiwan and deepening our cooperation on shared interests in line with the US ‘one-China’ policy,” the Biden administration official said, referring to the long-standing US policy under which Washington officially recognises Beijing rather than Taipei.

“What’s really important is this is not an escalation,” said Lev Nachman, a visiting scholar at the National Taiwan University who writes on Taiwanese politics.

“There is no bar raising, this isn’t unprecedented, this is normal. Is it a strong showing from Biden, but it’s not a radical change in direction or attitude. Biden’s people have made it clear that they are engaging with Taiwan in its own right.”

Nachman said the approach was a departure from the Trump administration, which appeared at times to engage with Taiwan solely to provoke Beijing, and also used inflammatory phrases such as referring to Taiwan as “free China.”

He said the parallel visit of US climate envoy John Kerry to China this week showed that the Biden administration was “treating Taiwan like Taiwan and China like China.”

“That to me shows a good growing productive relationship. Biden isn’t just going to increase Taiwan relations just to ‘stick it’ to China but because the actual tangible common goals and beneficial relationship they can have together,” he said.

Asked about future official-level contacts with Taiwan after the delegation’s visit, the US official replied: “We don’t have specific plans at this time, for particular travel, but … I certainly do expect for us to be having engagements and travel consistent with our one-China policy.”

The official said Taiwan and preserving the status quo across the Taiwan Strait would be part of talks with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga when he visits Washington for talks with Biden on Friday.



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