The tentative step taken by Washington to cock a snook at Beijing by deciding to send Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to Taipei could well become one of many significant steps countries around the world take to rein in China’s increasing belligerence and expansionism.

Beijing has objected to the visit saying it vehemently opposes official exchanges between the United States and Taiwan, claiming the latter is a renegade territory that will one day return to its fold.

That has not happened in the past 70 years, and it is unlikely to happen so long as Taiwan’s people exercise their will.

Certainly, no Taiwanese who has seen the position of Tibetans, Uighurs and now of the people of Hong Kong will ever wish to be part of China’s suffocating embrace.

The United States has sought to downplay Mr Azar’s visit saying it is not the first by an American official ~ the last such visit was in 2014 when the head of the Environmental Protection Agency Gina McCarthy had travelled to Taipei ~ and says it is aimed at gathering valuable inputs on how to tackle Covid-19.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who normally does not mince words, was by his own standards quite circumspect when he told reporters, “He’s going there with a deep and important purpose. We’re still in a global pandemic. Taiwan has had some significant success in how they have handled this. We have wanted them to be part of the conversations at the World Health Assembly that ~ China has prevented that from happening. And so, he’ll go there and talk to them about public health issues.”

The United States had cut off diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979 and officially follows the “One China” policy. But without recognising Taiwan officially, Washington does maintain trade ties and even supplies weapons to the country. Because of China’s overwhelming influence on global affairs, only a handful of countries ~ mostly small ones such as Nauru, Tuvalu, St. Lucia, Haiti and Honduras ~ maintain full diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

India maintains no diplomatic relations but has expanded trade and people-to-people ties from the mid-1990s. On 20 May, two BJP MPs were in virtual attendance for the swearing in of Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, in an attempt to convey a message to Beijing on its claims over Arunachal Pradesh, but which were in fact a precursor to the violent Chinese intrusions in Ladakh.

Among other nations in the QUAD, Australia enjoyed diplomatic relations with Taipei until 1972 when it established ties with Beijing. Now Australia’s government on its own admission “supports the development, on an unofficial basis, of two-way economic and cultural contacts” with Taiwan.

Japan has a somewhat more troubled relationship with Taiwan, having ruled the country for 50 years until 1945 after the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

But after Taiwan was voted out of the United Nations in the early 1970s, Japan fell in line with the rest of the world and chose diplomatic ties with Beijing.

It is against this backdrop that nations around the world might wish to re-examine their positions on Taiwan; if so, Mr Azar’s visit may well prove path breaking.