WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday (Jan 9) said he was lifting restrictions on contacts between US officials and their Taiwanese counterparts, a move likely to anger China and increase tensions between Beijing and Washington in the waning days of President Donald Trump's presidency.
China claims democratic and separately ruled Taiwan as its own territory, and regularly describes Taiwan as the most sensitive issue in its ties with the United States.
While the United States, like most countries, has no official relations with Taiwan, the Trump administration has ramped up backing for the island country, with arms sales and laws to help Taiwan deal with pressure from China.
In a statement, Pompeo said that for several decades the State Department had created complex internal restrictions on interactions with Taiwanese counterparts by American diplomats, service members and other officials.
"The United States government took these actions unilaterally, in an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing," Pompeo said in a statement.
"Today I am announcing that I am lifting all of these self-imposed restrictions," he added.
The move appeared to be another part of an effort by Pompeo and Trump's Republican administration to lock in a tough approach to China before Democratic President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan 20.
An official with Biden's transition said that once Biden was in office he would continue to support "a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan."
The Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States in Washington, which serves as Taiwan's unofficial embassy, said the move showed the "strength and depth" of the United States' relationship with Taiwan.
"Decades of discrimination, removed. A huge day in our bilateral relationship. I will cherish every opportunity," Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan's de facto ambassador in Washington, tweeted.
A senior Taiwanese official familiar with the island's security planning told Reuters this was the largest adjustment by the United States in its policy toward the island in recent years, saying both main US political parties have always strongly supported exchanges between the United States and Taiwan.
"It reflects the current situation of closer cooperation between the United States and Taiwan on regional and global issues," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Pompeo, who has taken an increasingly hardline stance toward China and identified it as the principal long-term threat faced by the United States, has repeatedly used the red-button Taiwan issue to push back against Beijing.
In November, he appeared to call into question the long-standing US "one-China policy" by stating in a radio interview that Taiwan "has not been a part of China," causing Beijing to warn that behaviour that undermined "China's core interests and interferes with China's domestic affairs will be met with a resolute counterattack."
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, will visit Taiwan next week for meetings with senior Taiwanese leaders, prompting China to warn on Thursday they were playing with fire.
Chinese fighter jets approached the island in August and September during the last two visits: by US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and US Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Keith Krach, respectively.
The United States is Taiwan's strongest international backer and arms supplier, and is obliged to help provide it with the means to defend itself under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.
"The United States government maintains relationships with unofficial partners around the world, and Taiwan is no exception. ... Today's statement recognises that the US-Taiwan relationship need not, and should not, be shackled by self-imposed restrictions of our permanent bureaucracy," Pompeo said.