US President Joe Biden’s warning the US would defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression has made headlines around the world – and put growing tensions between the small democratic island and its neighboring autocratic superpower back under the spotlight.
Less than a decade ago, ties seemed to be on the mend as the two sides – separated by a strait that is fewer than 80 miles (128 kilometers) wide at its narrowest point – deepened economic, cultural and even political engagements. But today, relations are at their lowest point in decades – raising fears of military escalation, even as experts caution that an imminent all-out war remains unlikely.
In recent months, China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only fueled speculations over Beijing’s intentions with Taiwan, raising questions about how the world might react should China launch an attack.
Though the White House quickly downplayed Biden’s comments, no other country is as deeply intertwined in the dispute as the United States, which has a complicated history with both sides and has long trod a delicate middle path.
China’s authoritarian turn under leader Xi Jinping and plummeting relations with Washington have pulled Taiwan closer into the orbit of the US. This has infuriated Beijing, spurring it to unleash more pressure on Taiwan and sending cross-strait relations on a downward spiral.
Here’s what you need to know about the island increasingly at the forefront of US-China clashes.
First, a quick history
Taiwan, which has long been inhabited by indigenous peoples, became part of the Chinese empire in the 17th century. It was then ceded to Japan in 1895 after Imperial China lost the First Sino-Japanese War.
The island remained a Japanese colony for half a century until the end of World War II. Following the allied defeat of Japan, China’s ruling Nationalist government, led by the Kuomintang (KMT), took control of Taiwan.
Not long after, the Nationalists – which ruled the mainland under the Republic of China (ROC) banner following the fall of Imperial China – came under renewed attack from an insurgent Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The two sides entered into a bloody civil war that resulted in the eventual defeat of the Nationalists who fled to Taiwan, moving the seat of the ROC government from Nanjing to Taipei. Across the strait, the CCP took power and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing.
Both proclaimed themselves the sole rightful government of the entire Chinese territory.
In Taipei, the Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, dreamed of one day retaking the mainland; In Beijing, CCP Chairman Mao Zedong deemed Taiwan the last piece to a united “new China” – a “problem” that needed to be solved sooner or later.
In recent years, Taiwan has downplayed its territorial claims over mainland China, and is today a vibrant democracy, with its own military, currency, constitution and elected government.
But it is not recognized as an independent country by most governments in the world, and has become increasingly isolated diplomatically.
Over the years, an increasing number of governments have switched their diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, leaving Taiwan with only 15 diplomatic allies at the end of 2021.