Skip to content

Why Did Beijing Have a Softer Response to the First U.S. Ambassadorial Visit to Taiwan in Forty Years?

{Editor’s Notes: U.S. Ambassador John Hennessey-Niland accompanied President Surangel Whipps Jr. of Republic of Palau visited Taiwan on March 28. Ambassador Hennessey-Niland became the first U.S. envoy came to Taiwan since 1979 when the U.S. established the official diplomatic relationship with People’s Republic of China (PRC) and cut the tie with Taiwan.

However, unlike what it used to do – taking strong reactions when the U.S. tried to get closer to Taiwan – Beijing gave a softer diplomatic response this time.

The relevant information follows.}

Ambassador Hennessey-Niland’s Visit to Taiwan

Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jr. visited Taiwan on March 28 to open the “Travel Bubble” program between Taiwan and Palau which intended to promote safe travel with fewer COVID-related restrictions and create a boon for tourism.

U.S. Ambassador John Hennessey-Niland accompanied President Whipps in his trip to Taiwan. While in Taiwan, he held a joint news briefing with Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Jaushieh Joseph Wu and also attended a national banquet that Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen hosted for Palauan President Whipps.

President Whipps expressed his gratitude to Ambassador Hennessey-Niland who helped Palau to receive the first patch of COVID-19 vaccine in January. He also credited his trip to the joint efforts by the three parties: Taiwan, Palau, and the U.S., as both the U.S. and Taiwan provided many medical assistance to Palau to fight against the COVID-19 and also make the “Travel Bubble” tourism program possible. {1}

Lin Tinghui, Deputy Secretary-General of the Chinese (Taiwan) Society of International Law, described the intricate meaning of the U.S. ambassador’s visit to Taiwan. The U.S. Ambassador was in contact with Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials and was welcomed by Foreign Minister Wu at the airport. “The focus is no longer on the Palauan President’s coming, but the U.S. ambassador’s coming.” This trip has raised the official connection level between the U.S. and Taiwan to “ambassadorial level.” {2}

Beijing’s Response

Beijing’s diplomatic response was softer comparing to what it did in the past.

On March 29, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian stated, “The ‘One China’ principle is a universally recognized norm in international relations, and a universal consensus that is shared, accepted, and practiced by the vast majority of countries in the world. Adhering to the ‘One China’ principle is the direction of the people and the general trend. We urge the U.S. side to fully recognize the high sensitivity of the Taiwan issue, adhere to the ‘One China’ principle and the provisions of the three U.S.-China joint communiqués, stop official U.S.-Taiwan exchanges, refrain from sending any wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces, refrain from trying to break through the bottom line of the Chinese side, and handle Taiwan-related issues carefully and appropriately so as not to seriously damage Sino-U.S. relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

(“一个中国原则是公认的国际关系准则,也是世界上绝大多数国家认同、接受、践行的普遍共识。坚持一个中国原则是人心所向,大势所趋。我们敦促美方充分认清台湾问题的高度敏感性,恪守一个中国原则和中美三个联合公报规定,停止美台官方往来,不向‘台独’分裂势力发出任何错误信号,不要试图突破中方底线,慎重、妥善处理涉台问题,以免严重损害中美关系和台海和平稳定。”) {3}

Beijing sent a military signal on April 3. Its first aircraft carrier Liaoning, along with five escorting warships, passed through the Miyako Strait near Japan. It then sailed south and conducted drill in the waters east of Taiwan.

Beijing remained mild on the diplomatic front. On April 10, China held a ceremony for the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-China ping pong diplomacy in Shanghai. China’s Ambassador Cui Tiankai gave a speech at the event, expressing that China is willing to work with the U.S. side to uphold the respect, friendship, and win-win spirit in ping pong competition, and to promote each other and each other’s achievements in mutually beneficial cooperation and healthy competition. James Heller, U.S. Consul General in Shanghai, also gave a speech. {4}

Beijing Pressured Biden’s Team to Stop Trump’s U.N. Ambassador to Visit Taiwan

Beijing had been taken much stronger actions in the past.

A few months ago, Beijing conducted a much stronger protest and was able to stop the U.S. from sending its U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations to Taiwan on January 13.

The State Department, during Trump administration’s last month, announced the plan for the U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft to visit Taiwan.

On January 11, Zhao Lijian stated, “The Chinese people’s determination to defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering. We will never allow anyone or any force to block China’s reunification process and use the Taiwan issue to interfere in China’s internal affairs. Any action that undermines China’s core interests will be resolutely countered by the Chinese side and will not succeed.

The Taiwan issue has always been the most important and the most sensitive core issue in U.S.-China relations. The ‘One China’ principle is the political foundation of U.S.-China relations and a prerequisite for the establishment and development of diplomatic relations between the two sides. We urge the U.S. side to abide by the ‘One China’ principle and the provisions of the three U.S.-China joint communiqués, and to stop any words or actions that enhance U.S.-Taiwan relations and strengthen military ties with Taiwan. We advise Pompeo and his gang to recognize the historical trend, stop manipulating Taiwan-related issues, stop the perverse practice, and not to go further and further down the wrong and dangerous path, otherwise it will be severely punished by history.”


台湾问题始终是中美关系中最重要、最敏感的核心问题。一个中国原则是中美关系的政治基础,也是双方建立和发展外交关系的前提。我们敦促美方恪守一个中国原则和中美三个联合公报规定,停止任何提升美台关系、加强与台军事联系的言行。我们奉劝蓬佩奥之流认清历史潮流,停止操弄涉台议题,停止倒行逆施,不要在错误和危险的道路上越走越远,否则必将遭到历史严厉惩罚。”) {5}

Eventually, Pompeo cancelled Ambassador Craft’s trip. Chinese website commented on the U.S.’ cancellation:

“Actually, Pompeo finally gave up Craft’s visit to Taiwan due to Biden team’s pressure. Biden Team’s pressure came from China’s strong warning.

“When China threw those words (Editor’s note: referring to Zhao Lijian’s “the most important and the most sensitive core issue” statement), it shows that it has reached the limit of its tolerance. Giving China Foreign Ministry’s clear attitude, the Biden’s new administration had no choice but to pressure Pompeo; and under that pressure, Pompeo had no choice but to retreat.

“It was reported that the plane carrying the U.S. Ambassador to U.N Craft had taken off already, but it was stopped in the air. Her flight flew for four hours and then headed back.

“Objectively, Pompeo wimped out at the end. But in essence, it is the Biden administration who wimped out on this matter. This shows clearly that on the Taiwan issue, the United States is much inferior to China when it comes to the ultimate bottom line in this game.” {6}

Beijing’s Response to U.S. Sending Warships to Taiwan

In December 2017, the U.S. Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2018 fiscal year. The bill required the U.S. government to evaluate the possibility of mutual visits by navy vessels between the U.S. and Taiwan.

Li Kexin, China’s Minister to the U.S., threatened that China would respond with military action to take over Taiwan, if U.S. did that. He said that PRC did not have time and opportunity to use its “Anti-Secession Law;” but if the United States sent warships to Taiwan, Beijing would activate the “Anti-Secession Law.”

“I tell you, the day the U.S. warships arrive in Kaohsiung is the day that our People’s Liberation Army will reunify Taiwan by force.” {7}


In the past, Beijing always showed strong reactions to stop any U.S.’ intention to improve the U.S.-Taiwan relations. However, this time Beijing gave out milder diplomatic responses once Biden administration indeed sent U.S. Ambassador to Palau to Taiwan.

This was a huge contrast to a few months ago when Beijing declared victory of successfully pressuring Biden’s team to stop U.S. Ambassador Craft’s visit to Taiwan. Also, on March 19, ten days before the U.S. Ambassador’s visit to Taiwan, China’s highest-ranking diplomat, Yang Jiechi, State Councilor and Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, lectured the U.S. for 16 minutes in Alaska.

Why did Beijing soften its diplomatic response on the U.S.-Taiwan relations this time? Did Beijing never really consider Taiwan as its core interest but just pretended it was, so that it can trade it for its real core interest from the U.S.? Or was it once a core interest to Beijing but now Beijing needs to give it up to protect its more important core interest?


{1} Central News Agency, “U.S. Ambassador John Hennessey-Niland Visited Taiwan,” March 29, 2021.
{2} China Review News Agency, “Lin Tinghui: U.S. Ambassador to Palau’s May Also Discuss Military Issues During His Visit to Taiwan,” March 30, 2021.
{3} China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry Website, “Foreign Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s News Brief on March 29, 2021,” March 29, 2021.
{4} Sohu, “’The Small Ball Took the Big Ball to Rotate,’ Shanghai Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Sino-U.S. Ping Pong Diplomacy,” April 11, 2021.
{5} China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry Website, “Foreign Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s News Brief on January 11, 2021,” January 11, 2021.
{6} Zhihu website, “Reasons Behind the Cancellation of High-Rank U.S. Official to Visit Taiwan, Pompeo Wimped out on the Last Minute.”
{7} Huanqiu, “Chinese Minister to the United States: The Day The U.S. Warships Arrive in Kaohsiung Is the Time of Beijing’s ‘Military Reunification’ of Taiwan,” December 10, 2017.