China and Taiwan have long-held a bitter and complicated history. Separated by the Taiwan Strait, they have remained in a standoff since 1949 when China became divided into the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China. Ever since, the Chinese government has seen Taiwan as a renegade breakaway province that will ultimately return. Indeed China’s President, Xi Jinping has previously vowed to ‘reunify’ Taiwan with the Chinese mainland, using force if necessary. In contrast, Taiwan views itself as an independent country – whether officially declared or not.
Tensions between America and China spiked after the US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan on 3 August 2022 and met Taiwanese president Tsai-Ing-wen. A furious China responded by declaring 6 days of military drills carrying out live fire exercises to simulate an assault on Taiwan, appearing to be rehearsing for a potential attack.
Here we look at what’s behind China-Taiwan tensions in more detail – and why America is involved.
The end of China’s Qing dynasty
Taiwan first appeared in Chinese records in 239 AD, when an expeditionary force was sent to explore the area. Having been a Dutch colony in the mid-17th century, Taiwan was administered by China’s Qing dynasty from 1683-1895, attracting many Chinese migrants.
Following the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, Taiwan was ceded to Japan, who occupied it for five decades until their defeat in World War Two.
Meanwhile, after the Qing dynasty ended in 1911, divisions led the Kuomintang (KMT)-led government of the Republic of China and forces of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to ally in attempts to reunify the country. This alliance didn’t last, and from 1927 the two sides fought in the Chinese Civil War. By the early 1930’s, the Nationalists controlled most of China.
Postwar control and exile
After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the Republic of China was given consent by its wartime allies of America and the UK to begin ruling Taiwan.
The Nationalists and Communists resumed their civil war. Backed by Soviet Russia, the CCP’s army won, and in 1949, the Nationalist forces of General Chiang Kai-shek, the remnants of his government and their 1.5 million supporters evacuated to Taiwan. Mao Zedong, leader of the Communists, consolidated control of the mainland, establishing the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chiang established a government in exile in Taiwan, the Republic of China (ROC).
Recognition and the ‘One-China’ policy
Initially, Chiang’s government-in-exile still claimed to represent all of China, intending to re-occupy it. It held China’s seat on the UN Security Council and for decades many Western nations including America recognised it as the only Chinese government.
Yet as time passed, some countries argued that Taiwan’s government could no longer be considered genuinely representative of the hundreds of millions of people who lived in mainland China. Thus crucially, in 1971, the UN switched its diplomatic recognition to Beijing. Following Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the CCP’s new leader, Deng Xiaoping vowed to open China up to the world.
Recognising opportunities for trade and the need to normalise relations, the US formally established diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1979. As part of that deal, the US agreed to recognise and stick to a ‘One-China’ policy – that there is only one China, and Taiwan is a part of it. Following a backlash, Congress passed a law compelling America to supply weapons to Taiwan for its self-defence.
Only a handful of countries now diplomatically recognise the ROC despite Taiwan having its own constitution and democratically-elected leaders.
Economic cooperation between mainland China and Taiwan built slowly and steadily over time. In 1978, Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, was elected and allowed more democratisation. In the 1980s Taiwan relaxed rules on visits and investment in China, even declaring in 1991, that the war with the PRC was over.
The PRC proposed a ‘one country, two systems’ option, allowing Taiwan significant autonomy if it agreed to come under Beijing’s control, but Taiwan rejected the offer. Subsequent attempts to intimidate Taiwan with missile tests in 1995 provoked a strong display of military might from America, and Beijing backed down.
In 2000, Taiwan elected Chen Shui-bian as president, whose Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) openly backed independence. After his re-election in 2004, China passed an ‘anti-secession’ law, insisting China had a right to use ‘non-peaceful means’ against Taiwan if it tried to ‘secede’ from China.
KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou succeeded Chen in 2008. The first formal talks between the two countries took place, with economic agreements and far-reaching trade accords, including the 2010 bilateral Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). His re-election in 2012 greatly furthered cooperation.
Protests erupted in Taiwan in 2014 at its growing economic dependency on Beijing, and in 2016, Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP became Taiwan’s president. Tsai won a second term in 2020 with a record-breaking vote, widely seen as a snub to Beijing. Protests in Hong Kong against mainland China’s growing influence strengthened Taiwan’s stance.
Biden’s presidency and tensions in 2022
America officially still sticks to the ‘One-China’ policy and has formal ties with Beijing rather than Taipei. It has a long-standing policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’, refusing to say what it would do if China attacked.
In 2019, China’s President Xi Jinping reconfirmed his commitment to ‘reunifying’ Taiwan with the mainland, stating:
‘We make no promise to abandon the use of force, and retain the option of taking all necessary measures.’
Since his election, President Biden has said several times that the US would come to Taiwan’s aid in a war, including in May 2022, but each time the White House claimed he ‘misspoke’ and reconfirmed America’s commitment to the ‘One-China’ policy. (Nevertheless, whenever Taiwan has previously been threatened, America has sent ships and troops in support). Beijing responded by stepping up incursions of military jets into Taiwan’s air defence zone and across the Taiwan Strait, prompting America to forge new regional alliances with India, Australia and Japan.
A long-standing critic of China’s human rights record, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan on 3 August 2022 as part of a tour of America’s allies in the region, designed to show America’s support for Taiwan. Angry at the timing of this trip while he campaigns for a historic third term as president, Xi Jinping reacted with an unprecedented show of strength around Taiwan.
It remains to be seen whether the ‘One-China’ policy can stand the test of time.