Taiwan’s top envoy to the US Hsiao Bi-khim has met US acting assistant secretary Sung Kim at the State Department, signalling that high-level official contact between Taiwanese and American officials has not stopped despite the change of government in the United States and a stern warning from Beijing.
In a tweet on Wednesday, the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs revealed that the acting assistant secretary of state had a meeting with Hsiao, which indicated that “the US is deepening ties with Taiwan, a leading democracy and important economic and security partner”.
The bureau also posted a picture of Kim and Hsiao at the meeting. The island’s semi-official Central News Agency suggested it was taken inside the State Department building, citing a social media hint by Hsiao that “the photo speaks for itself”.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
Hsiao responded in her tweet that she, Kim and his team talked on many issues but did not reveal what they talked about.
“I had a good meeting with acting assistant secretary Kim and his able team today, where we covered many issues of mutual interest, reflecting our strong and broad partnership. I also wished the team a happy Lunar New Year!” she tweeted.
On Thursday, Taiwan’s foreign ministry thanked the Biden government for persistently and solidly supporting Taipei since January 20.
“The US and Taiwan have continued to maintain close and smooth communication and deepen cooperation in various sectors, including political, economic and security areas,” the ministry’s spokeswoman Joanne Ou said.
She said Hsiao had also met Kim to “exchange opinions of mutual concerns and express their desires to deepen partnership on all areas between the two sides”.
It was the first publicly announced meeting between Taiwan and US officials under the Biden administration.
It also was Hsiao’s first visit to the State Department since Biden took over from Trump as the US president on January 20. She was among foreign envoys officially invited to attend the presidential inauguration – the first by any Taiwanese envoy since 1979.
In the past, the US restricted Taiwanese envoys from meeting officials at the State Department. That protocol changed under the Trump administration, which eased restrictions by allowing more open contact with Taipei despite the absence of formal ties.
Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory that must be returned to its control – by force if necessary. Time and again Beijing has warned Washington against official contacts with the self-ruled island and urged it to abide by the one-China policy.
Because of Trump’s policy, Hsiao’s predecessor Stanley Kao met then assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell at the State Department building in July. Soon after Hsiao assumed the post in late July, she also met Stilwell there as well as Pamela Pryor, a senior official at the State Department’s Bureau of International Organisation Affairs, on January 16.
The change of US government, however, prompted concerns that unlike Trump, the Biden administration might opt for a more reserved policy towards Taiwan.
Stephen Tan, president of Cross-Strait Policy Association, a Taipei-based think tank, said there had been concern that unlike Trump, the Biden administration might retreat in its relations with Taiwan.
“But the publicly announced meeting between Hsiao and Kim indicated that the Biden administration has continued Trump’s path in the US ties with Taiwan,” he said.
He said it indicated that interaction between Taiwan and the US under Biden would not be affected by US-China relations. “In the past, Taiwan’s relations with the US tended to cool off because of warming US-China ties, but apparently … Biden is treating ties with Taiwan and China separately,” he said.
Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, a professor of international relations and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taipei, said there had been meetings between Taiwanese and US officials at the State Department as early as the 1990s, but they were not disclosed.
“It shows that the Biden administration recognises the importance of US-Taiwan relations and will continue its efforts to deepen the bilateral ties,” Huang said, referring to the public announcement of the Hsiao-Kim meeting.
He said how official ties between the US and Taiwan were publicly regarded would be determined mostly on a case-by-case basis, with or without former secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s last-day announcement to lift restrictions on US-Taiwan official interactions.
On whether Biden continues Trump’s strategy to use Taiwan to counter China, Huang said: “Taiwan serves the function as both ‘gatekeeper’ for liberal democratic partners and allies, and ‘gateway’ to engage with the Chinese mainland.
“In comparison, Trump had used Taiwan as ‘spearhead’ to intimidate China, while Biden may see Taiwan as a ‘shield’ or ‘fortress’ to defend and protect shared interests of like-minded regional countries,” he said.
More from South China Morning Post: