The United States has escalated tensions with China in the waning days of the Donald Trump administration by lifting restrictions late last week on formal contacts between its officials and those from Taiwan. China, which sees Taiwan as a breakaway province to be reunified with the mainland, reacted with anger this week, condemning the move and threatening a firm counter-attack. Washington, however, did not follow through with a plan for its United Nations envoy to visit Taipei this week - which would have forced Beijing to respond as it did last year when top US officials made high-profile visits to the island by sending aircraft across the Taiwan Strait median line. Such US moves are emblematic of the confrontational approach that Washington under the Trump administration adopted towards China that has contributed to the deterioration and volatility of their relationship. This has in turn led to uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific, given the influence that both major powers wield in the region.
The power transfer in the US next week, when President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated, will give both sides an opportunity to arrest the decline in their relationship, if not exactly to reset it. It would be difficult to turn back the clock to 2016 as so much has changed in the past four years in the US and the world, and in the China-US relationship. To begin with, the Trump administration's characterisation of China as a strategic competitor has found resonance on both sides of the political aisle in the US, while anti-China sentiments remain strong among the American public. There is now bipartisan support for a tougher stance on China. At the same time, China has emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic more confident and assertive internationally.