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Beijing, angered by the U.S. House Speaker’s visit to Taiwan, has been holding massive war games as a show of force. Here’s a primer on how decades of tension brought us to this point, and what could happen next

Pingtung, Taiwan, Aug. 9: Artillery flares are fired in the sky during Taiwanese live-fire drills, a response to similar drills by the mainland Chinese military near waters claimed by Taiwan.Annabelle Chih/Getty Images

Taiwan and China: Latest updates

  • The People’s Liberation Army has “successfully completed various tasks” around Taiwan but will “keep an eye on changes in the situation in the Taiwan Strait,” China’s military said Wednesday, a potential sign that war games in the area will de-escalate. Meanwhile, Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office issued a policy statement saying Beijing would “exert our utmost efforts to achieve peaceful reunification” but reserved the right to use force to annex Taiwan.
  • Taiwan’s foreign minister says he believes the war games – prompted by last week’s visit to the island by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – are a rehearsal for the invasion of the island, and that after they end, “China may try to routinize its action in an attempt to wreck the long-term status quo across the Taiwan Strait.”


Current situation in the Taiwan Strait

A TV screen in Hong Kong shows Chinese military drills in progress on Aug. 5.Tyrone Siu/Reuters

China’s war games

China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, has been busy in the Taiwan Strait in recent days, sending fighter planes and ships along the median line separating mainland China’s waters from Taiwan’s. The PLA started live-fire drills last Thursday, including air and sea combat and tests of conventional missiles; those were expected to end Sunday, but then China’s Eastern Theatre Command announced more drills of submarine and amphibious warfare. Taiwan, which said one of the Chinese drills was a simulation of an invasion of the island, has put its military on high alert. Taiwan has also eased some of the air-travel restrictions around the sites of the first war games; Taiwanese airspace, which, while not large, is an important transit point between East Asian countries, and disrupting commercial traffic there for too long would be costly.

Nancy Pelosi poses for photos with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.Handout/Getty Images

Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan

The Chinese drills are an apparent response to last Wednesday’s visit to Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who stopped there with other members of Congress while on a junket of Asian destinations. It’s not the first time she’s irked Chinese authorities on a foreign trip (she went to Tiananmen Square in 1991 for a commemoration of the crackdown two years earlier), nor is it the first such visit by a house speaker (Newt Gingrich went to Taiwan in 1997). Ms. Pelosi stressed that the U.S. “one China” policy (more on that later) has not changed. But after meeting Ms. Tsai, she said it was important to protect democracy in Taiwan and elsewhere, a message she also brought to Kyiv this past spring to speak out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:

Today the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy. America’s determination to preserve democracy, here in Taiwan and around the world, remains ironclad.

Soldiers line up in New Taipei City on July 27 for scheduled annual military drills. Taiwan's military has spent years preparing for a possible invasion from the mainland.Ann Wang/Reuters

Monuments to Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek in Taipei, and Communist leader Mao Zedong in the city of Dandong. Each claimed to be the leader of the legitimate government of all China. Reuters

China and Taiwan’s fraught past

From civil war to separate states

The governments in Beijing and Taipei are each products of the civil war that made China a Communist country in 1949, and their animosity is, in a sense, a continuation of that war. When Mao Zedong’s Communists seized the mainland, the ruling party they overthrew – the Kuomintang, led by the autocratic Chiang Kai-shek – regrouped on the island of Taiwan and declared themselves to be the legitimate government of all China. Now a democracy, Taiwan still officially calls itself “Republic of China,” or ROC, to stand apart from the Communist-run PRC, or “People’s Republic of China.”

For decades, the two governments have been in a standoff, punctuated by a few short armed exchanges (more on those later). Beijing claims sovereignty over the island and says it has the right to take it over some day, by force if necessary. But Beijing has myriad reasons not to do that: Taiwan, a manufacturing and trade powerhouse of Asia, is well-armed and well-connected with the West, and invading it would damage the global economic ties Beijing has made since Mao’s time.

Mao meets Richard Nixon in 1972 on a visit that began rapprochement between Beijing and Washington.The Associated Press

What is a ‘One China policy’?

Any country that wants trade and diplomatic relations with China has to agree to its position that there’s only one Chinese government, and it’s not the ROC. Countries that accept this typically call it a “One China policy.” But countries who do business with Taiwan have found enough ambiguity to keep unofficial ties open. They’re also careful to distinguish between the One China policy and the “One China principle,” the PRC’s position that it has sovereignty over Taiwan and can apply it however it wants. Here’s how the U.S. State Department makes the distinction:

We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side; we do not support Taiwan independence; and we expect cross-Strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means. We continue to have an abiding interest in peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. Consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States makes available defense articles and services as necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability – and maintains our capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of Taiwan.

What is Canada’s policy on Taiwan?

Canada doesn’t recognize Taiwan as sovereign, which is why it doesn’t have an ambassador there, but it does have a locally incorporated Trade Office that also offers emergency consular aid. Taiwan is Canada’s 13th largest trading partner; the PRC is No. 3, after the United States and European Union.

As the recent Chinese war games got under way, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly joined G7 allies in an Aug. 3 statement urging Beijing not to start “aggressive military activity” or “unilaterally change the status quo by force in the region.”

Which countries recognize Taiwan as independent?

Just over a dozen countries, mostly small ones, officially call Taiwan a sovereign state:

  • Central America and Caribbean: Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  • Pacific: Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu
  • Other: Paraguay, Vatican City

How past Taiwan Strait crises started and ended

Three times in the past 70 years, tensions across the Taiwan Strait have reached crisis points that eventually returned to the status quo, even when the two sides exchanged fire.

U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, middle, meets in 1956 with Canada's external-affairs minister Lester Pearson and prime minister Louis St. Laurent.The Associated Press

1954-55

  • Causes: The ROC moves troops onto two smaller islands in the Taiwan Strait, Kinmen and Matsu. The United States, which still recognizes the ROC as the legitimate Chinese state, prepares a defence treaty with Chiang Kai-shek to keep Communism in check after the recently concluded Korean War. The treaty, signed in September of 1954, does not include the disputed islands.
  • Consequences: The PRC shells ROC forces on the offshore islands, killing two American volunteer advisers. U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower holds back on sending troops or ships, but gets Congress’s authorization to defend the ROC if attacked. The PRC backs down.

Shells from old Chinese bombings in a scrap-metal shop in Kinmen, Taiwan, in 1999.Wally Santana/The Associated Press

1958

  • Causes: The PRC resumes shelling of Kinmen and Matsu and launches an unsuccessful amphibious landing on another ROC-held island, Dongding.
  • Consequences: The Eisenhower administration sends ships to form a blockade protecting ROC supply lines. The PRC relents and a ceasefire is introduced, but the PRC and ROC agree to a face-saving arrangement where the opposing sides shell each other on alternate days. This shelling continues until 1979, after Washington changes its China policy and officially recognizes Beijing.

Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui in 1996.C.C. Yao/REUTERS

1995-96

  • Causes: Taiwan is getting ready for its first election where the president is directly chosen by the people, not the Kuomintang-held legislature. The incumbent, Lee Teng-hui, visits the United States to speak at his alma mater, Cornell University. President Bill Clinton opposes the trip, but allows Mr. Lee a visa after Congress votes to allow it. The PRC is angry, saying the visit could be construed as recognition of the ROC.
  • Consequences: The PRC holds missile tests and war games in the Taiwan Strait, which stop when Mr. Clinton sends naval carrier groups to the area. Mr. Lee wins re-election.

More reading

Andrew Coyne: Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan annoyed China? All the more reason for her to go

Gordon Gibson: In today’s ‘Great Game,’ the West is looking soft against hard, ruthless foes

Charles Burton: Pelosi’s Taiwan visit has brought the thorny ‘one China’ debate into sharp focus

Editorial: The dangers of Nancy Pelosi’s maverick diplomacy


Compiled by Globe staff

With reports from Associated Press and Reuters


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