While the second state of emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic has expanded in Japan, the incumbent U.S. president faced a second impeachment in Washington. In the final week of his presidency, as seen from Tokyo, the Trump administration seems to be desperate to leave a legacy.
Domestically in the United States, Donald Trump challenged the result of the 2020 presidential election, which he portrayed as “stolen.” He first filed a series of unsuccessful lawsuits to overturn the results in several battleground states and finally he incited a group of faithful supporters to physically storm the Capitol building.
Despite the second impeachment, which was more powerful than the first one with 10 defiant Republican congressmen voting in favor of it, Trump may not yet be convicted in a Senate trial. He reportedly even plans to pardon himself together with his close family members before he leaves the White House on Jan. 20.
Internationally, the Trump administration, as The Washington Post put it, is “planting political landmines for a Biden administration keen to change course on Trump’s foreign policy.” Foreign Policy described this as “fire sale diplomacy” or “parting shots” to deliberately hamper Biden’s ideas. The list of such landmines is long.
On Jan. 10, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo officially designated Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization. On the next day, the Trump administration reclassified Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. And on Jan. 12, Pompeo declared Iran the “homebase” for the terrorist group al-Qaeda.
But what was most interesting was the Jan. 9 press statement by Pompeo lifting restrictions on contacts between U.S. officials and their Taiwanese counterparts. It is not just because his decision would infuriate Beijing but simply it’s difficult to imagine the exact future ramifications of the move.
In his statement, Pompeo first said, although “Taiwan is a vibrant democracy and reliable partner,” “for several decades the State Department has created complex internal restrictions to regulate our diplomats, servicemembers and other officials’ interactions with their Taiwanese counterparts.” It’s the same in Japan.
Then, he said that those measures are taken “unilaterally, in an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing” and that all “contact guidelines” regarding relations with Taiwan previously issued by the Department of State under authorities delegated to the secretary of state will be “null and void.” If that’s the case, what does it mean, exactly? Pompeo’s elaboration is unhelpful.
“Additionally,” Pompeo continued, “any and all sections of the Foreign Affairs Manual or Foreign Affairs Handbook that convey authorities or otherwise purport to regulate executive branch engagement with Taiwan via any entity other than the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) are also hereby voided. The executive branch‘s relations with Taiwan are to be handled by the non-profit AIT.”
The Foreign Affairs Manual and Foreign Affairs Handbook are easily accessible online. Their unclassified database is so complicated, however, it is difficult to know exactly what Pompeo meant. In addition, there could be many classified provisions in them.
Taiwan’s de facto ambassador in Washington welcomed the decision. Bonnie Glaser, a distinguished China hand at a Washington think tank, reportedly said that “examples of the restrictions included Taiwanese officials not being able to enter the State Department, but instead having to meet at hotels.” It’s unclear if that is the extent of it.
Although it’s nothing special to see, it may be better for Taiwanese officials to be able to go inside the Department of State. The fundamental question, however, is to what extent Pompeo’s statement has changed, and made more formal, the existing informal relationship between Taiwan and the United States.
Article 403.4-4(D) a of the Foreign Affairs Manual stipulates the official position that, “The United States recognizes the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China and acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.”
Is Pompeo trying to change this official position? Probably not. Is he going just to unify the communication channel with Taipei or even to send or welcome higher-ranking officials to and from Taiwan in various fields? Pompeo’s statement is too ambiguous for Tokyo to know.
The more important question is whether the incoming Biden administration would try to undo what the Trump administration has done in its final months. It might be easier for Biden to return immediately to the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Paris Accord on Climate Change. There would be minimal opposition to those moves.
What about the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on international trade? These might be more difficult. Finally, what about the U.S.-Taiwan relations? It remains to be seen.
The Biden administration may be trapped in a quandary over Taiwan because the United States may send the wrong signal to China if the new secretary of state nullifies Pompeo’s Jan. 9 decision. By the same token, it could kill a cordial restart of U.S.-China relations if Tony Blinken as the next secretary of state maintains Pompeo’s decisions.
Questions in Tokyo do not end here. Will a Biden administration really undo other controversial domestic or external measures that the Trump administration has made? If Trump pardons himself, which is quite unbelievable by standards in Japan, would Biden rescind or nullify the effect of the pardon?
Tokyo knows that the situation in Washington may not be as serious and chaotic as reported in CNN. People here in government and business alike, however, are holding their breath and watching what will happen next in the United States. They believe that the final week of the Trump presidency may change the future of U.S. policy toward East Asia for years to come.