Taiwan has many of the trappings of statehood: A constitution, an army and a democratically elected government. It has one of the world’s top 10 tech companies, boasts a better credit rating than Israel or Spain and is the only place in Asia where gay marriage is legal. But it’s not a member of the United Nations and can’t compete under its own name at the Olympics. The reason is China, which claims the island as its territory and resists any recognition of its de facto independence. As China’s leaders grow increasingly assertive about issues of sovereignty, they have ratcheted up tensions in response to Taiwan’s election of an independence-leaning government.

The Situation

President Tsai Ing-wen, first elected in a landslide in 2016, was easily re-elected in early 2020 while her Democratic Progressive Party retained control of the legislature. The thumping victory over the China-friendly Kuomintang party was attributed in part to the mainland’s hard line on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and its mounting political pressure on Taiwan. Chinese President Xi Jinping insists “China must and will be united” under the “one-country, two systems” model that operates in Hong Kong — a position the Chinese government reiterated after Tsai’s re-election. Tsai says China’s demands for Taiwan are not feasible, as “democracy and authoritarianism cannot coexist in one country,” and has vowed to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty. During Tsai’s first term, China launched regular patrols around Taiwan, pressured global companies to acknowledge China’s claims and barred its citizens from traveling to the island. Taiwan’s lawmakers passed a bill banning interference in the democratic process amid allegations China had ramped up an information war. (Twitter and Facebook took countermeasures.) The U.S.-China trade war has actually boosted Taiwanese businesses, as has Tsai’s push to get local companies to spend more at home.

The Background

Victory by the Communists in the Chinese civil war in 1949 forced the nationalist Kuomintang government to flee the mainland and cross the 110-mile Taiwan Strait along with more than 1.5 million refugees. (Until the end of World War II, Taiwan had for decades been a Japanese colony; China had ceded its claims in the 19th century.) After four decades of martial law, Taiwan underwent a largely peaceful transition to democracy. Tensions erupted into Chinese military action in the 1950s and China conducted missile tests ahead of the 1996 elections. The U.S. passed a 1979 law committing to keep the peace in the Taiwan Strait and — much to China’s chagrin — continues to sell arms to the island, while Donald Trump took an unprecedented call from Tsai while he was president-elect and later signed into law a resumption of high-level U.S. official visits to Taiwan. Even with only a handful of nations recognizing Taiwan (China has pressured many not to), its 23.6 million people have built their economy into a global technology and manufacturing powerhouse. Many of Apple’s iPhones are made by Taiwanese companies, while Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. leads the world in making computer chips for other firms.

The Argument

China has more than 1,500 missiles capable of hitting Taiwan and no peace treaty has been signed in the seven decades since the governments split. While many China-watchers say there is too much at stake for military confrontation, especially given the prospect of U.S. involvement and possible economic fallout, Trump’s election and China’s assertiveness have added uncertainty to old assumptions. The island is often framed as being divided between the pro-independence camp and those wanting unification with China, yet polls consistently show that a majority supports Taiwan maintaining the peaceful ambiguity of the status quo. 

The Reference Shelf

• A QuickTake on the One-China principle.

• A U.S. Congressional Research Service report on Taiwan policy and Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 that  “maintains the capacity of the U.S. to resist any resort to force.”

• The Diplomat considers the legality of the U.S. and Japan coming to Taiwan’s defense and looks at China’s attempts to win the hearts and minds of Taiwan’s people.

• Richard Bush makes the case for a peaceful long-term solution in his book “Uncharted Strait.”

• China’s 2005 anti-secession law stating that “reunifying the motherland is the sacred duty of all Chinese people, the Taiwan compatriots included.”

• The U.S. Defense Department’s 2018 report to Congress on China’s military power.  

--With assistance from Debra Mao.

To contact the authors of this QuickTake: Adrian Kennedy in Taipei at adkennedy@bloomberg.netSamson Ellis in Taipei at sellis29@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: Grant Clark at gclark@bloomberg.net

First published Jan. 10, 2016

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