WASHINGTON • The United States called off last-minute trips by top envoys to its allies in Europe and Taiwan on Tuesday in a sudden diplomatic volte-face, amid the chaotic swansong days of the Donald Trump administration.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been due to make a final official visit to Europe, while Ms Kelly Craft, Washington's United Nations envoy, was set to land in Taiwan yesterday afternoon.
But the visits were suddenly scrapped a week before Democrat Joe Biden takes office and as President Trump faces an all-but-certain second impeachment on a charge of inciting his supporters to storm the Capitol last week.
The U-turn encapsulates the turbulent transition period that has enveloped Washington since Mr Biden's November election victory.
But it also allows both Europe and Taiwan to dodge hosting what could have been potentially awkward delegations by an outgoing administration.
The cancelled trips round off four tumultuous years of foreign policy under Mr Trump that tested Washington's traditional allies in both Europe and Asia.
The visit to Europe would have been Mr Pompeo's last foreign trip, but the State Department announced he was staying to ensure a "smooth and orderly" transition.
The trip was already looking of limited diplomatic value with him not scheduled to meet any top European Union officials in Brussels.
In Luxembourg, an official told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity that one leg of Mr Pompeo's trip was cancelled after Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn called Mr Trump a "criminal" in comments to RTL radio.
Ms Craft's planned visit to Taiwan came at an acutely perilous time for the self-ruled democracy.
Authoritarian China regards Taiwan as its own territory and has vowed to seize it one day, if necessary by force.
The US switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979, but it remains Taipei's leading unofficial ally and is bound by Congress to sell the island weapons to defend itself.
As Mr Trump feuded with China on a host of issues, from the coronavirus to trade to national security, Taipei became a way to poke Beijing in the eye.
On Sunday, Mr Pompeo declared he was lifting "complex internal restrictions" limiting official contacts with Taiwan.
Beijing promptly warned that Washington would "receive a resolute counterstrike from China" over the move and "pay a heavy price" if Ms Craft visited.
Protecting Taiwan, one of Asia's most progressive democracies, from a Chinese invasion has become a rare bipartisan issue in Washington. But Mr Biden, who favours a far less confrontational diplomatic style than Mr Trump, has given few details on what his Taiwan policy might be.
Ms Bonnie Glaser, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies' expert on Taiwan and China, said Taipei would be "disappointed but also somewhat relieved" by Ms Craft's last-minute cancellation.
"Taiwan doesn't want to create friction with the incoming administration," she added.