WASHINGTON — The United States said on Saturday that it would relax its restrictions on interactions between American officials and their counterparts in Taiwan as the Trump administration seeks to lock in a tougher line against Beijing in its final days.
A set of complex guidelines meant to make it difficult for American officials to visit with Taiwan’s officials was put in place after the adoption of the “One China policy” in 1979, which recognized the communist government in Beijing and removed recognition of the nationalist government that ruled Taiwan.
In a statement on Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States had unilaterally imposed the restrictions “in an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing.”
“I am lifting all of these self-imposed restrictions,” Mr. Pompeo said. “Executive branch agencies should consider all ‘contact guidelines’ regarding relations with Taiwan previously issued by the Department of State under authorities delegated to the secretary of state to be null and void.”
But Evan S. Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown University and a former National Security Council staff member, said the move was likely to have little practical effect. “It looks like a publicity stunt,” he said. “The administration is over in two weeks.”
China, Dr. Medeiros said, is almost certain to react angrily to the announcement, but it is unlikely to make any move to upset relations with President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. before he takes office.
“The Chinese want to make sure that nobody has any illusions about how damaging something like this would be,” Dr. Medeiros said. “That’s the purpose of the rhetoric, but they will stop short of actually blowing up the relationship with an incoming administration until they see how Biden’s going to approach it.”
In trying to warm relations with Taiwan, the Trump administration is ending much as it started. In December 2016, Mr. Trump took a congratulatory call from the president of Taiwan, prompting speculation that his administration might shift longstanding American policy.
Still, taking such a relatively significant step with so few days left in the term left some scratching their heads. Internally, some State Department officials had registered their objections to the change, suggesting that it was being made without the proper review. Some diplomats have been dismayed by what they see as a flurry of last-minute diplomatic moves involving decisions that could have been made much earlier in the term.
The moves, some outside experts said, are meant to lay a trap for Mr. Biden, forcing him either to pay a domestic political cost if he unwinds them or to sour relations with Beijing if he does not.
The Presidential Transition
A Biden transition official said Mr. Biden remained committed to the One China policy, as well as the Taiwan Relations Act, which ensures ties, and arm sales, between Taipei and Washington. Mr. Biden believes support for Taiwan should be strong and bipartisan, the official said.
China views Taiwan as its sovereign territory, and Taipei has never declared independence. The U.S. policy acknowledges that Beijing makes a claim to Taiwan but does not recognize the claim.
Beijing has long reacted negatively to any efforts by Taipei to normalize or regularize relations with Washington. It has denounced trips to the United States by officials from Taiwan and criticized meetings with American officials. The opposition from Beijing, and the State Department’s complex rules, have ensured that most interactions between the United States and Taiwan take place at a relatively low level.
In the final year of the Trump administration, the White House has taken a tougher line on China, and official rhetoric about Beijing has hardened. Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is set to visit Taiwan on Jan. 13. Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, became the highest-ranking official to visit Taiwan since 1979. Mr. Azar flew to Taipei last August to discuss the international response to the novel coronavirus.
Beijing demonstrated its opposition to official exchanges like Mr. Azar’s visit by sending two fighter jets toward the island just before the talks.
The visit, along with proposals for additional arms sales and discussions of a trade deal, were part of a push by the Trump administration to strengthen ties with Taiwan.
Administration officials believe the tougher line against China — and a warmer relationship with Taiwan — is likely to be a legacy of Mr. Trump’s. They have been looking for ways to lock in policy changes that might be difficult for Mr. Biden to reverse, to install officials skeptical of China in roles that could continue after Mr. Trump’s term end and to shift resources to studying and gathering intelligence on China.
In recent weeks, John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, has begun those shifts resources and has pushed for more diverse analytical views on China.
Mr. Pompeo’s move will be relatively easy for Antony J. Blinken, Mr. Biden’s pick to be the next secretary of state, to undo. And even if Mr. Blinken does not reinstate the regulations, Mr. Biden could discourage high-level contact with Taiwan officials.
But with Beijing’s clampdown on Hong Kong, there is growing bipartisan support for closer ties with Taipei, if only to discourage China from trying to reclaim Taiwan by force.
Many of the restrictions on meetings with Taiwan officials were the product of an earlier era of more hopeful relations with Beijing, said Elbridge Colby, who served in the Pentagon at the beginning of the Trump administration.
“These are bureaucratic hindrances, barnacles that had accumulated over time,” Mr. Colby said.
With Beijing cracking down on democratic movements and asserting itself globally, it is critical to strengthen ties with Taiwan, Mr. Colby said. “We need Taiwan to increase its resilience, its defensibility, its economic strength, because there’s a real possibility that China will take aggressive action against it, “ he said.