A senior United States naval official visited Taiwan Sunday, as the outgoing Trump administration continued to strengthen ties with the self-ruled island in its last weeks, further riling Beijing and potentially helping to shape how Joe Biden deals with this issue as president.
Sources identified the official as Navy Rear Admiral Michael Studeman, the top military intelligence official at US Indo-Pacific command. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it welcomed such visits but would not give any details on the specific trip “since this itinerary has not been made public.”
Under President Donald Trump, Washington has ramped up engagement with Taipei, especially during the last 12 months. The Trump administration has authorized billions of dollars of arms sales to the self-governed island and, in August, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar became most senior US official to visit Taiwan in decades.
Improved ties with Taiwan came as the US increased pressure on China and sought to build an anti-Beijing alliance in the region, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in particular taking a hardline on the issue.
In another move sure to anger China’s leaders, the US also welcomed the head of the Tibetan government in exile to the White House over the weekend, though he did not meet with senior officials.
Beijing regards Taiwan as part of its territory, even though it has never been controlled by the Communist Party and the island has been governed separately since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Chinese President Xi has pledged to “reunite” Taiwan with mainland China, by force if necessary, and recent months have seen increasingly aggressive moves by China’s military.
On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry Zhao Lijian said Beijing “firmly opposes all forms of official exchanges between the United States and Taiwan … so as not to harm peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and Sino-US cooperation in important areas.”
Zhao was speaking ahead of a series of high-level meetings between US and Taiwanese officials under a new economic dialogue. Over the weekend, they signed a number of agreements on future cooperation in areas of health, tech and security, though the meeting stopped short of agreeing a new trade deal.
“Our economic partnership with Taiwan – based on a shared commitment to free markets, rule of law, and transparency – is only getting stronger,” US State Department spokesman Cale Brown said on Twitter.
As officials were meeting, the US Navy sailed a warship through the Taiwan Strait, the first such transit since the election, which the Navy said “demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
While US ships routinely transit the strait, China views the strategic waterway separating it from Taiwan as a priority area and often shadows foreign vessels as they sail through.
Shaping Biden’s policy
Even as President Trump has largely receded from public engagements in the wake of his election loss to Biden, Pompeo has remained highly active, traveling around the world and maintaining pressure on China, which he has described as the “central threat” to the US.
In a speech given a week after the election, Pompeo said facing the “China challenge” means “no more illegal claims in the South China Sea, no more coercion and co-optation of American businesses, no more consulates used as dens of spies, no more stealing of intellectual property, and no more ignoring fundamental human rights violations. And the (Communist) party’s atrocities in Xinjiang, Tibet, and elsewhere will not be tolerated.”
Writing on Twitter Saturday, Pompeo hailed the economic meetings between the US and Taiwan, saying the two governments “are strong partners in defending freedom, advancing economic ties, and promoting our shared democratic values.”
How exactly a Biden presidency will engage with China remains to be seen – many analysts expect the new administration to maintain a hard line in some areas, while avoiding the type of fiery rhetoric and posturing that has characterized Trump’s time in office.
During the Democratic primaries in February, Biden referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “thug,” and said that Beijing had to “play by the rules.” A Biden campaign ad in June accused Trump of getting “played” by China.
The renewed focus on China is evident in the Democratic Party platform document, which was released in August 2020. During the last presidential campaign in 2016 the document made only seven references to China. This year’s version had more than 22.
“Democrats will be clear, strong, and consistent in pushing back where we have profound economic, security, and human rights concerns about the actions of China’s government,” the 2020 platform said.
Biden also has a history of support for Taiwan, both as a senator and since leaving office. In January, he tweeted congratulations to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen when she won reelection.
That has not stopped some China hawks, as well as Chinese dissidents and supporters of Hong Kong and Taiwan independence, fearing a Biden administration could take a softer line with Beijing. Recent moves by Pompeo and others could be intended to force the incoming administration’s hand, making it more difficult to reverse certain policies once in office.
The visit of Lobsang Sangay, head of the India-based Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), to the White House on Saturday is another such step. No leader of the Tibetan government in exile has visited the building in 60 years, the CTA said in a statement.
Pompeo in July accused Beijing of violating human rights in Tibet, pointing to increased restrictions on religion, language and culture in the region, which has been controlled by China since 1950. Washington under Trump has urged “meaningful autonomy” for Tibet, even as Beijing has denounced such statements as encouraging “splittism.”
In its statement, the CTA said the logic for denying its officials entry to the White House and the US State Department “was that the US government does not recognize the Tibetan government in exile.”
“Today’s visit amounts to an acknowledgment of both the democratic system of the CTA and its political head,” the statement added. “(This) unprecedented meeting perhaps will set an optimistic tone for CTA participation with US officials and be more formalized in the coming years.”
CNN’s Ben Westcott and Isaac Yee contributed reporting.