While the United States, like most countries, has no official relations with Taiwan, the Donald Trump administration has ramped up backing for the island country, with arms sales and laws to help Taiwan deal with pressure from China.
The United States is ending decades-old restrictions governing official contacts with Taiwan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
He said the "complex internal restrictions" on contacts with Taipei by diplomats, service members, and others had been imposed "in an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing."
Pompeo added, "No more."
The declaration may be more symbolic than substantive in effect, but it nonetheless appears certain to anger China, which sees Taiwan as its o wn territory.
It comes in the final weeks of the Donald Trump administration, and at a time of already heightened tensions between Beijing and both Washington and Taipei.
It was not clear what the change means in practice, with 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.
The shift comes after a year of mounting US-Chinese tensions.
Today, I am lifting all self-imposed restrictions on executive branch agencies’ interactions with their counterparts from Taiwan. This action will benefit both of our great democracies. https://t.co/JmxE5jsZYf— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) January 9, 2021
Clash over envoy's visit
Trump has sent multiple senior officials to Taipei over the last year, even as he clashed with China on a host of issues, ranging from its handling of the coronavirus pandemic to disputes over trade, security, and human rights.
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.
Craft's scheduled three-day visit will come just a week before Joe Biden's inauguration as US president, adding to a string of diplomatic headaches facing the incoming administration.
"The United States will pay a heavy price for its wrong action," the Chinese mission to the UN said in a statement responding to Craft's planned trip.
"China strongly urges the United States to stop its crazy provocation, stop creating new difficulties for China-US relations... and stop going further on the wrong path."
An American statement said Craft's visit, which Taiwan has officially welcomed, would "reinforce the US government's strong and ongoing support for Taiwan's international space."
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.
Military tensions between mainland China and Taiwan have grown sharper in the past year – reaching their worst since the mid-1990s, some analysts say.
Chinese jets made a record 380 incursions into Taiwan's defence zone last year, a military official said on Tuesday.
Beijing's animosity has increased dramatically since Tsai Ing-wen won election as Taiwan's president in 2016; she rejects Beijing's insistence that the island is part of "one China."