In the view of many Chinese diplomats, Henry Kissinger is the statesman that contributed most to Sino-US relations. Considered “an old friend of the Chinese people”, the former US secretary of state has met every Chinese leader from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping personally. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of his first visit to China, which paved the way for a normalisation of diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing.
In contrast to the respect shown for the 97 year-old Kissinger, the Chinese government cannot wait to see the back of Mike Pompeo, secretary of state in the Trump administration. In a sign of how much the bilateral relationship has deteriorated, Pompeo was excoriated as the “worst” of Kissinger’s successors by state news agency Xinhua this week, which slammed him as “only interested in stoking unwarranted confrontations”. The Global Times, a fiercely patriotic tabloid, was even more derisive about America’s top diplomat. “We can ignore clowns like Pompeo,” it wrote, celebrating his imminent departure from office.
The rebukes have picked up in tempo since Pompeo announced what Beijing regards as an unacceptable departure from the so-called ‘One-China Policy’ (a cornerstone of US-China relations that Kissinger helped to forge half a century ago). The principle has governed how the two governments handle the thorny topic of Taiwan and its level of diplomatic (non) recognition, feeding into previously accepted norms that limit official interaction between Washington and Taipei.
“No more,” Pompeo said in a provocative statement last weekend, announcing that Washington had lifted all of its “self-imposed restrictions” on relations with Taiwan.
“For several decades the State Department has created complex internal restrictions to regulate our diplomats, service members, and other officials’ interactions with their Taiwanese counterparts,” Pompeo said, claiming that the US government had taken this approach only in an attempt to appease the Communist regime.
Just two days earlier Pompeo had announced a visit by Kelly Craft, the US ambassador to the United Nations, to Taiwan this week – the third such trip by a senior official in recent months.
Craft was also expected to meet personally with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
Pete Hoekstra, the US ambassador to the Netherlands, then joined the fray, tweeting on Monday: “Made some history today. Welcomed Taiwan Representative Chen to our Embassy. Glad that our State Department colleagues around the world will now be able to host our friends from the vibrant democracy on our Embassy grounds.”
China’s state media fumed at the news, seeing it as Pompeo’s “last chance to dig a hole” and “inflict a long-lasting scar” on Sino-US ties.
As ever, the Global Times was delighted to up the ante, daring Pompeo to visit Taiwan himself before the end of his tenure on January 20.
“PLA fighter planes will fly over Taiwan immediately, declaring China’s sovereignty over Taiwan island in an unprecedented way,” the newspaper added. “If the US and the island of Taiwan dare to overreact, war will be sparked.”
Attention will soon turn to how Joe Biden approaches the diplomatic challenges of the Taiwan situation, particularly the pace at which he will pull back from Pompeo’s more inflammatory stance. He is in a difficult position. The Chinese will expect to see evidence that he is returning to policies pursued by previous administrations. That path will probably track his political instinct too, with a member of his transition team telling Taiwan’s China News Agency that Biden supports “a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues” and is committed to the Taiwan Relations Act and the One-China Policy. Yet the new president won’t want to be painted by his opponents as giving ground immediately to Beijing, especially in a context in which US-China ties are strained on so many fronts.
In a signal of the imminent handover of power in Washington – and in a final setback for Pompeo – it was announced on Tuesday that the State Department had cancelled all travel plans this week, including Kelly Craft’s trip to Taiwan.
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