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‘Personal signal’: US’s Biden sends ex-officials to Taiwan

President Joe Biden sent an unofficial delegation of United States former high-level officials to Taiwan on Wednesday in a signal of support for the democratic island, which China claims as its own.

Former US Senator Chris Dodd and former Deputy Secretaries of State Richard Armitage and James Steinberg are expected to arrive in Taiwan on Wednesday afternoon, travelling at Biden’s request, in what a White House official called a “personal signal” of the president’s commitment to the island.

“Once again this visit demonstrates the firm relationship between Taiwan and the United States,” said Xavier Chang, the spokesman for Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.

The delegation will meet Tsai on Thursday.

Taiwan’s 23 million people live with the threat of invasion by China, which has not ruled out the use of force to take control of the island. Beijing has also sought to isolate Taiwan on the world stage and condemns efforts by other countries to maintain contact with the island.

The visit comes as the US and Taiwan mark the 42nd anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, which Biden backed when he was a senator.

The delegation will follow “a longstanding bipartisan tradition of US administrations sending high-level, unofficial delegations to Taiwan,” the official told the Reuters news agency.

They called the visit “a personal signal” from the president, who took office in January.

“The selection of these three individuals – senior statesmen who are longtime friends of Taiwan and personally close with President Biden – sends an important signal about the US commitment to Taiwan and its democracy.”

Tensions across strait

The State Department said on Friday it was issuing new guidelines to enable US officials to meet more freely with officials from Taiwan. China, which has stepped up military activity around the island since Tsai took office in 2016, responded by warning the US “not to play with fire”.

Former President Donald Trump angered China by sending several senior officials to Taiwan and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced days before the Trump presidency ended in January that he was lifting restrictions on contacts between US officials and their Taiwanese counterparts.

Taiwan is China’s most sensitive territorial issue and a main bone of contention with Washington, which is required by US law to provide the island with the means to defend itself.

“The United States is committed to engaging Taiwan and deepening our cooperation on shared interests in line with the US ‘one-China’ policy,” the Biden administration official said, referring to the long-standing US policy under which Washington officially recognises Beijing rather than Taipei.

Taiwan is modernising its military to face the rising threat from China, which claims the democratically-ruled island as its own [File: Chiang Ying-ying/AP]

Asked about future official-level contacts with Taiwan after the State Department announcement, the official replied: “We don’t have specific plans at this time, for particular travel, but … I certainly do expect for us to be having engagements and travel consistent with our one-China policy.”

The official said Taiwan and preserving the status quo across the Taiwan Strait would be part of talks with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga when he visits Washington for talks with Biden on Friday.

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