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What Exactly Is The Taiwan-China Conflict About?

Story Highlights
  • Governments and businesses that do not follow Beijing's lead on this issue risk repercussions from the Chinese government.
  • President Joe Biden has stated that if China attacks Taiwan, the US will come to its aid.

Tensions between China and Taiwan have risen in recent years as a result of disagreements over the island’s status.

Beijing claims sovereignty over the territory and has promised to “unify” it with the mainland if necessary through force.

Given Washington’s special ties to Taiwan, any military conflict over Taiwan could also involve the United States.

How did it start?

China and Taiwan have been separated since 1949, when the Communists won the Chinese civil war under Mao Zedong’s leadership. The defeated Nationalists, led by Mao’s archrival and Kuomintang (KMT) party chief Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan.

Taiwan, which has been self-governing since then, is officially known as the Republic of China, while the mainland is known as the People’s Republic of China.

The Taiwan Strait separates the island from the mainland. It has a democratically elected government and a population of approximately 23 million people.

For more than seven decades, Beijing has regarded Taiwan as a renegade province, promising to “unify” it with the Chinese mainland.

What is Taiwan’s international status?

Beijing maintains that there is only “one China,” and Taiwan is a part of it.

China puts pressure on countries all over the world to switch allegiance to Beijing and cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Only 14 countries have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan at the moment.

Taipei is also not a member of United Nations agencies, though it is a member of organisations such as the Asian Development Bank and the World Trade Organization.

China also puts pressure on businesses around the world to list Taiwan as a subsidiary of China.

Governments and businesses that do not follow Beijing’s lead on this issue risk repercussions from the Chinese government.

For example, in 2021, China suspended trade with EU member Lithuania in exchange for the establishment of a Taiwanese representative office in its capital.

What’s the US’ relationship with Taiwan?

The United States recognised Taipei as the government of all China for nearly three decades after the Communist government took power in mainland China.

However, in 1979, Washington severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan and terminated the mutual defence treaty, establishing formal diplomatic relations with mainland China.

Despite the shift, Washington has kept close unofficial ties with Taiwan.

It continues to sell military equipment to Taiwan for self-defense, despite Beijing’s repeated warnings. US Navy warships also pass through the Taiwan Strait on a regular basis to project American military power in the region.

The United States claims that its goal is to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. To that end, it wishes to preserve the status quo.

Under President Donald Trump, the United States strengthened military ties with Taiwan and increased arms sales, selling over $18 billion in weapons to the island.

President Joe Biden has stated that if China attacks Taiwan, the US will come to its aid.

Could China go to war over Taiwan?

Beijing has not ruled out using force to reunify Taiwan with China.

In a major speech delivered in January 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for reunification and stated that the status quo could not be maintained indefinitely.

“We make no promise to refrain from using force and reserve the right to use any means necessary,” he said at the time.

Xi has also stated that reunification is critical to realising the “Chinese dream” of restoring the country’s world-power status by 2049.

In a show of force, China is increasingly sending fighters, bombers, and surveillance aircraft near Taiwan, as well as warships through the Taiwan Strait.

Fears have been raised that the willingness to use force, combined with China’s rapidly expanding military capabilities and deteriorating cross-strait relations, could spark a conflict.

What’s the current state of cross-strait relations?

Cross-strait tensions have risen since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was elected in 2016.

Taiwan’s movement to formally declare independence has gained traction under Tsai.

The president’s Democratic Progressive Party supports the island’s independence.

Tsai denied the existence of the 1992 consensus, a political agreement reached by Taipei and Beijing representatives on the nature of their relationship. Both parties agreed that there was only “one China,” though their interpretations of what that meant differed.

Tsai and the DPP have also increased defence spending, with a nearly $17 billion (€16.7 billion) budget for 2022.

Tsai boarded a naval warship for only the second time in her six years in office on Tuesday, where she praised the military’s resolve to defend the island while overseeing its largest annual naval and air exercises.

The drills, which simulate the repelling of an invading force, are part of efforts to increase combat readiness in the face of rising Chinese military pressure.

When asked about the drills, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian reiterated China’s warnings against Taiwan’s military moves, according to Reuters.

“Taiwan’s military confrontation with China is akin to a mantis obstructing a chariot,” he said. “It is doomed to fail in the end.”

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