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China warns Trump admin. heading down "dangerous path" with Taiwan outreach

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Beijing — With just days left for the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has lifted a nearly four-decade policy that unilaterally restricted official U.S. government visits to the democratic island of Taiwan. Pompeo faulted the policy "as an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing," adding for emphasis: "no more."  

The State Department quickly put the policy change into practice, announcing that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft would visit Taiwan this week.

Beijing, which considers Taiwan a renegade province that rightfully belongs to China, quickly condemned the move, while Taipei thanked the U.S. for its support.

"We urge the U.S. to abide by the one-China principle," China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters on Monday, adding that Washington should "refrain from any words or actions that promote U.S.-Taiwan relations or strengthen military ties with Taiwan."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty

He took aim directly at Pompeo for the move: "We advise people like Pompeo to recognize the historical trends, stop manipulating Taiwan-related issues, stop going against the tides of history, refrain from going further down the wrong and dangerous path, otherwise they will be severely punished by history."

But 111 miles across the Taiwan Strait in Taipei, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said in a tweet that he was "grateful" to Pompeo and the U.S. State Department, "for lifting restrictions unnecessarily limiting our engagements these past years."

"The closer partnership between #Taiwan & the #US is firmly based on our shared values, common interests & unshakeable belief in freedom & democracy," Wu added.

The change in U.S. government policy toward Taiwan sets the stage for Craft's visit — the first by a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in half a century, since Taiwan was formally excluded from the U.N. in 1971. Craft is scheduled to land in Taiwan on Wednesday.   

Years of shifting policy

The policy update is the latest in a string of U.S. moves that have drawn Taipei closer to Washington, and it comes after global recognition for the island's vibrant democracy and its success in containing the coronavirus.

In August 2020, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar became the most senior U.S. government official in decades to visit Taiwan and meet President Tsai Ing-wen — and to draw Beijing's condemnation. He was also the highest-level U.S. cabinet official to visit the island since 1979, when Washington formally cut ties with Taipei via a series of agreements with Beijing.

In January 2017, then President-elect Donald Trump accepted a phone call with President Tsai — a move that infuriated Beijing and set the course for four years of warming U.S.-Taiwan ties, and proved to be yet another point of contention in the deteriorating U.S.-Beijing relationship.

Biden and the road ahead

Victor Gao, a veteran international affairs analyst and Chair Professor at Soochow University, called Taiwan "the most important and the most sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations."  

He told CBS News on Monday that by changing U.S. policy, Pompeo was "completely disregarding and distorting history and current geopolitics in claiming the previous U.S. administrations since Nixon had been kowtowing to China regarding Taiwan. The overwhelming majority of the countries in the world and all the international organizations acknowledge there is only one China... Taiwan is not a separate and independent country, but a part of China. Pompeo will not succeed in his attempt to change this reality in the world."   

Nine days before President-elect Joe Biden takes over the White House, other Chinese scholars in Beijing were cautious about the positions he may take against China.

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Beijing "prepares for the worst" when it comes to the changing U.S. policy on Taiwan and Ambassador Craft's looming visit, Sun Zhe, Director of the Center for U.S.-China Relations at Tsinghua University told CBS News.

He said that while "a single visit cannot change the current cross-Strait relations," he was "not sure what Biden will do, but he has been careful in handling the Taiwan issue" in the past.

When then-President George W. Bush sought to defend Taiwan in 2001 against an increasingly aggressive Beijing, Sun noted that "Biden was cautious, and I think he will be more prudent."

"Craft's visit constitutes a major action [by the] Trump administration… to erode extraordinarily [the] U.S.' one-China policy, which it has done since early 2018 and accelerated much since April 2020," Professor Shi Yinhong, former Director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing, told CBS News. The Biden White House, he added "might continue the process in essence, with less pace and intensity."

CBS News' Grace Qi contributed to this report. 

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