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What’s behind escalating China-Taiwan tensions?

Taiwanese sailors at a commissioning ceremony for a new guided-missile corvette in Yilan County, Taiwan, on Sept. 9, 2021. (I-Hwa Cheng/Bloomberg News)

The threat of military conflict has long loomed over Taiwan, and flare-ups, including surges in flights by Chinese warplanes near the self-ruled island or nearby Chinese military exercises, routinely set off new waves of fears.

That includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) visit to Taiwan this week, which prompted condemnation and threats of retaliation from Chinese officials and state media outlets. Beijing’s harsh rhetoric sparked worries about the situation spiraling into another cross-strait crisis.

“China will take resolute and strong measures to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday in response to speculation about Pelosi’s visit. “Those who play with fire will perish by it.”

Though the U.S. House speaker has wrapped up her Taiwan visit, China announced plans for large-scale military exercises Thursday through Sunday around the island.

Taiwan, separated from China by the Taiwan Strait, has an independent, democratically elected government and its own constitution.

Beijing sees Taiwan as a breakaway province that will one day unify with China — by force, if necessary.

Here is where things stand between Beijing, Taipei and Washington.

What is Taiwan’s political status?

The government of Taiwan was founded by Chinese nationalists, under Chiang Kai-shek, who fled there in 1949 from China after losing a civil war to the forces of the Communist Party. Mao Zedong and his communist forces declared the People’s Republic of China; Chiang and his Kuomintang forces began leading the government of the Republic of China, which remains Taiwan’s formal name. Both leaders saw their own as the sole and rightful government of China.

The United States initially recognized the government in Taiwan as the government of China. The only U.S. president to ever visit Taiwan was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who met with Chiang Kai-shek in Taipei in 1960.

However, after Taiwan lost China’s seat at the United Nations to Beijing in 1971, it slowly lost diplomatic recognition around the world. The United States changed course in 1979 and opened diplomatic relations with Communist-led China, which began to strengthen. Since then, the United States has not had a formal diplomatic relationship with Taiwan and instead has entered a decades-long period of diplomatic limbo.

Beijing opposes any official contact between Washington and Taipei. Rather than liaising with embassies, the United States works with Taiwan through the American Institute in Taiwan, a private nonprofit group established after the United States broke from recognizing Taiwan in 1979.

China has proposed a formula — “one country, two systems” — that would permit Taiwan a degree of autonomy while it accepts Chinese unification, a structure already in place in Hong Kong. Taiwan has rejected the offer, maintaining that it will defend its democracy and independence.

The United States has operated under what is known as the one-China policy — which acknowledges that there is only one China, without considering Taiwan as a separate entity — with the understanding that Taiwan’s fate would not be decided by force.

What does the U.S.-Taiwan relationship look like in practice?

Although the United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, what it does have can be hard to distinguish.

The same year that relations with Beijing were established, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Taiwan Relations Act, which set out provisions for unofficial relations.

Washington and Taipei have strong economic and military ties. The 1979 act states, “The United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.”

Both maintain de facto diplomatic postings. The United States had the American Institute in Taiwan, which opened an enormous $255 million building in 2018 that looked much grander than many official embassies.

Taiwan, meanwhile, operates the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, which sits in the Cleveland Park area of Washington. Its current representative, and de facto ambassador, is Hsiao Bi-khim, a former member of Taiwan’s parliament and an ally of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

How does the world see the Beijing-Taiwan relationship?

Just over a dozen remaining partners, all relatively small, maintain formal diplomatic connections with Taiwan — though other countries, including the United States, maintain robust ties with the island.

Taiwan is left out of or restricted from full participation in some global organizations: It continues to seek participation in the United Nations. Even during the pandemic, Taiwan is not part of the World Health Assembly, the World Health Organization’s decision-making body.

“Taiwan is a reliable partner, a vibrant democracy, and a force for good in the world, and its exclusion from the WHA would be detrimental to our collective international efforts to get the pandemic under control,” Blinken said in a May 2021 statement that called for Taiwan’s inclusion in the forum as an observer.

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What could happen next?

Amid the rapid military rise of China and its shown willingness to assert sovereignty — for example by imposing a national security law in Hong Kong — Taiwan and its friends around the globe worry about a real chance of conflict in coming years.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reignited debate over the likelihood of a Chinese attack on Taiwan and its timing. Taiwan’s military said in late July that it remains action-ready in case of an invasion and carried out invasion drills that included helicopters, tanks and fighter jets.

Several key events and interactions also point to Taiwan and the United States getting closer, as U.S. relations with China further deteriorate.

In 2016, President-elect Donald Trump spoke to Tsai over the phone — upending decades of a carefully managed diplomatic distance between the two offices.

Through his years in office, Trump continued to shake up what was a long-delicate U.S.-Taiwan relationship that aimed to support Taiwan without provoking China. In his last days in office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lifted the rule prohibiting interactions between American and Taiwanese diplomats — part of moves some experts say were designed to frustrate China and force difficult decisions upon the Biden administration.

Since taking office, Biden has repeatedly emphasized that United States is willing to defend and support Taiwan against an attack by China.

This report has been updated.