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President Joe Biden's administration committed Thursday to resuming trade talks with Taiwan in its highest-level contact yet with the island, brushing off warnings by Beijing against pursuing an economic pact.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, a member of Biden's cabinet, spoke to minister without portfolio John Deng on "the importance of the US-Taiwan trade and investment relationship," a US statement said.
Both US and Taiwanese statements said the two sides committed to reconvening "in the coming weeks" the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement Council, which under former president Barack Obama was in charge of finding ways to deepen commercial relations.
Such talks were last held in 2016 before the election of Donald Trump, who switched gears and focused on reaching a mega-deal with China, although relations between Washington and Beijing deteriorated sharply by the end of his turbulent term.
Tai's talks mark the highest-level direct engagement between Taiwan and the Biden administration. It comes after three senators on Sunday visited Taipei where they offered 750,000 coronavirus vaccine doses and, unusually, arrived in a US military aircraft.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday told a congressional hearing that the United States would "soon" hold talks with Taiwan on "some kind of framework agreement."
His remarks drew a rebuke from the Chinese foreign ministry, which urged the United States to "stop any form of official exchanges with Taiwan, handle the Taiwan issue cautiously and refrain from sending any wrong signals to Taiwan independence forces."
Beijing considers the self-governing democracy to be a territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.
- Long path ahead -
President Tsai Ing-wen has stressed Taiwan's separate identity after her predecessor entered into a major trade deal with mainland China.
While Taiwan enjoys strong bipartisan backing in Washington, progress on trade had been held up by concerns from lawmakers of farm states over the island's safety restrictions on beef and pork imports.
Pleasing Washington but setting off street protests by concerned consumers, Tsai in August ended a ban on US pork treated with ractopamine, an additive to promote leanness that is also prohibited in the European Union.
She also said Taiwan would buy US beef from cattle slaughtered at more than 30 months of age -- after which most mad cow disease cases have been detected.
Deng, the minister in charge of talks, said in Thursday's talks that "Taiwan has fully demonstrated its determination to push for internationalization and to deepen bilateral trade and economic ties with the US by revising the ractopamine residue level in pork last August."
"Taiwan plays an important role in international supply chain and is a trusted partner of the US," he said, according to a statement by the cabinet office of economic and trade negotiations.
Despite the talks, a formal trade agreement is unlikely to be imminent -- not only due to the diplomatic implications but due to a toughening US position with its commercial partners.
The US-Taiwan Business Council, in an editorial published in December, said the island would be an ideal partner for Biden as it already has high standards on issues his administration has listed as priorities -- environmental protection, labor and intellectual property rights.
It acknowledged that the benefits of an agreement would not be purely economic but could spur an easing of the island's international isolation.
"A US-Taiwan trade deal would provide political cover for other trading partners to follow suit," it said.
Concerns have been rising in the United States that China may be increasingly willing to use force against Taiwan as it steps up military flights and after it sharply curtailed political freedoms in Hong Kong.
Trump stepped up statements in favor of Taiwan last year and Biden has moved ahead, including by revising convoluted rules that have blocked direct US dealings with Taiwan since Washington switched recognition to Beijing in 1979.
In a first, Biden invited a Taiwanese representative to his inauguration.