Presidential ambitions are nothing new for secretaries of state. Unlike many of his predecessors, however, Mike Pompeo made little effort to obscure those aspirations. Many of his closing tweets in office, for example, were arguably about politics rather than policy and on the day after the inauguration—he tweeted out a countdown to the next presidential election the day after Biden’s inauguration. While his January 9 announcement, in which he declared the previously issued contact guidelines relating to Taiwan as “null and void,” could be understood in that context, that is not the only relevant context for understanding the revocation of the Taiwan guidelines. The decision should also be assessed in light of the evolution of Taiwan policy in recent years. These dual considerations lead to dueling assessments of the policy move. Let us consider each in succession.
A Dangerous Gambit?
Like some of his predecessors, Mike Pompeo never fully subscribed to the view that, as chief diplomat, he should refrain from appearing to politick on the home front. From his 2019 Cairo speech in which he explicitly slammed the Obama administration’s Middle East policy—and criticized President Obama himself—to his address to the 2020 Republican National Convention, delivered remotely while on government business in Jerusalem, Pompeo showed disregard for traditional strictures on the secretary of state’s conduct and comportment.
That is why it is so hard to believe that future political considerations were not at least partly responsible for Pompeo’s recent policy announcements. In this light, his designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization four days after the January 6 attack on the Capitol could look like an effort to signal to Trump supporters that the secretary of state knows who the “real” terrorists are. In naming Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, Pompeo appears to be making a cynical play for Florida voters. And Pompeo’s elimination of the Taiwan contact guidelines looks like little more than an effort to enhance his tough-on-China bona fides.
In a tweet two days before the Taiwan announcement, Pompeo favorably contrasted arms sales to Taiwan under the Trump administration (USD $15 billion over three years, in his telling) to those under the Obama administration (USD $14 billion over 8 years). His snarky #DoTheMath hashtag and the explicit comparison to his immediate predecessors revealed a secretary of state primarily interested in bolstering his own political fortunes.
That tweet, in turn, came on the heels of the announcement that US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft would visit Taiwan later in January. Writing for Foreign Policy, Jessica Drun described that announcement thusly:
He highlighted the trip in what was essentially a footnote to a press release condemning China for arrests in Hong Kong. That confirmed the suspicion of many Taiwan analysts that this administration views the island primarily as a card to play against the People’s Republic of China and as a convenient foil to it—or the “free China” per Pompeo’s press release.
That suspicion was compounded by the fact that the since-canceled visit, coming so late in the Trump term, could be little more than symbolic. Symbolism, to be sure, has value, especially when it comes to Taiwan. Sending the UN ambassador to Taipei would have usefully highlighted Taiwan’s exclusion from international institutions like the World Health Organization at a time when the world would benefit from its involvement. New bilateral policy initiatives, however, could not have realistically been on the table with just days remaining in the Trump term. Rather, Pompeo’s statement arguably evinced an intention to poke China in the eye—perhaps with a view to padding his resume in the process.
Drun rightly points to the problematic use of Taiwan as a “card to play” against China. But what is arguably more troubling is the use of Taiwan as a card to play against Democrats. As Drun notes, despite Taiwan policy having for decades “been largely insulated from partisan whims,” Pompeo put that at risk:
In today’s hyperpartisan domestic environment, there is a real risk in associating support for Taiwan with a specific political party […]. This is even more the case given that Pompeo’s decision was made against the backdrop of a deadly insurrection, spurred on by a president getting close to political bankruptcy.
Should Pompeo, in abolishing the guidelines, bequeath a partisan split over Taiwan policy, neither American nor Taiwanese interests will be served.
The Right Policy
But is that risk as great as Drun suggests? There is good reason to think not. Pompeo’s presidential ambitions may taint the nullification of the Taiwan contact guidelines, but their nullification was arguably a good policy. Writing in a previous issue of the Global Taiwan Brief about the Taiwan Assurance Act, which became law as part of last year’s omnibus spending bill, I described why the guidelines were so problematic:
That State Department officials cannot meet Taiwan counterparts in executive [branch] office buildings is an inconvenience that, one imagines, must have at times deterred such meetings. Refusal to treat visiting Taiwan dignitaries with the formalities and honors granted other foreign visitors denies them dignity without meaningfully advancing US interests in Asia. Ensuring that Taiwan’s foreign and defense ministers do not step foot in Washington, DC—indeed, keeping them outside the Beltway entirely—denies American senior national security officials opportunities to engage with counterparts from a country with whom the United States could one day conceivably fight alongside in a conflict with a rival nuclear power.
Although perhaps now overtaken by recent events, the Taiwan Assurance Act, which Congress passed with bipartisan support, requires the secretary of state to “conduct a review of the Department of State’s guidance that governs relations with Taiwan, including the periodic memorandum entitled ‘Guidelines on Relations with Taiwan’ and related documents, and reissue such guidance to executive branch departments and agencies.” The act unambiguously describes the sense of Congress as favoring a loosening of restrictions on diplomatic engagement with Taiwan.
Mainstream Democrats in Congress and in the new administration may reasonably be dismayed by the manner, timing, and context of the contact guidelines announcement—all of which are plainly problematic—but their policy preferences on this issue are likely to remain largely aligned with those of mainstream Republicans. In recent years, those preferences have been inclined towards pursuing a more robust, more normal relationship with Taiwan.
What’s more, the Biden team may welcome the move, even if only cautiously. David Stilwell, until recently the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told the Financial Times that a “lengthy review” preceded the decision to discard the guidelines. Newly minted political appointees now have access to that review, and may have even had access to it during the transition. The Biden transition team was not known for leaks to the press, but it is notable that there was not a hint of displeasure publicly aired in the days following Pompeo’s announcement.
Jessica Drun defensibly accuses Trump’s State Department “of attempting to bind the next administration’s hands on Taiwan policy, otherwise setting up incoming leadership to easy criticisms of inaction.” But Pompeo’s motivations aside, incoming officials may end up taking a more sanguine view of his decision. The six-month policy review mandated by the Taiwan Assurance Act would have been a point of prolonged friction in US-China relations, with Beijing attempting to use available leverage to affect its outcome. Now, however, the Pompeo announcement has reduced the import of that review. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his confirmation hearing, did say that “we’re going to take a hard look” at his predecessor’s decision, but also that he wants to be sure “we’re acting pursuant to the mandate in the [Taiwan Assurance] act that looks at creating more space for contacts.” Blinken and his team may well welcome the opportunity Pompeo has provided to regularize diplomatic interactions with Taiwanese counterparts and to do so without having to themselves make fraught decisions about the prior guidelines.
It should go almost without saying that the timing of the guidelines’ nullification was not ideal. If Trump administration officials believed discarding them was the correct move, that policy should have been adopted sooner, at a time when the administration would have been well-prepared for Chinese blowback directed at either Washington or Taipei. Alternatively, it would have been better for the Biden administration to make this decision on its own—doing so would have made for a far more potent demonstration of American backbone and would have reinforced bipartisan consensus on Taiwan policy rather than risk weakening it as Pompeo did.
But despite the ill timing, despite the wretched context—the waning days of an administration only reluctantly cooperating in the presidential transition and beset by insurrection in the capital city—discarding overly restrictive limitations on bilateral engagement is a good policy. It is a policy for which Congress has, in bipartisan fashion, already voiced its approval and a policy that Taiwan’s leaders, by all indications, genuinely support. The Biden administration need not applaud Mike Pompeo for taking this step how and when he did. But the new administration can and should make the most of it.
The main point: The timing, context, and manner of Mike Pompeo’s nullification of the Taiwan contact guidelines were all problematic but it may work out for the best.