US lifts restrictions on official American contacts with Taiwan

The decision may be more symbolic than substantive

FILE - In this Nov. 24, 2020, file photo, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media prior to meeting with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah at the State Department in Washington. Pompeo announced Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021, that the State Department is voiding longstanding restrictions on how U.S. diplomats and others have contact with their counterparts in Taiwan, another move that is expected to upset China as the Trump administration winds to an end. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP, File)
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The United States is ending restrictions on official contacts with Taiwan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Saturday.

The declaration may be more symbolic than substantive in effect, but it nonetheless appears certain to upset China, which sees Taiwan as its own territory.

Taiwan's government welcomed the move.

"For several decades the State Department has created complex internal restrictions to regulate our diplomats, service members, and other officials’ interactions with their Taiwanese counterparts," Mr Pompeo said.

"The United States government took these actions unilaterally, in an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing. No more."

He said executive branch agencies should consider all previous State Department guidelines concerning relations with Taiwan to be "null and void".

"Our two democracies share common values of individual freedom, the rule of law, and a respect for human dignity," Mr Pompeo said. “The US-Taiwan relationship need not, and should not, be shackled by self-imposed restrictions of our permanent bureaucracy.”

The decision comes in the final weeks of President Donald Trump's administration.

It was not clear what the change means in practice, with Mr Pompeo saying executive branch communications with Taiwan will be handled by the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which is owned by the US government and serves as the de facto embassy.

Mr Trump has sent several senior officials to Taipei over the last year.

Mr Pompeo's statement also came just two days after China warned the United States it would pay a "heavy price" if its United Nations ambassador, Kelly Craft, made good on plans to travel to Taiwan on Wednesday.

Beijing opposes any diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.

The AIT was founded in 1979, when the United States extended diplomatic recognition to mainland China under a historic agreement requiring it to end formal recognition of Taiwan.

But Washington remains a staunch ally of Taipei and is bound by Congress to sell it weapons for self-defence. It opposes any move to change Taiwan's current status by force.