After Beijing sent a record surge of warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone last week, China’s military announced Monday that it carried out military exercises in a province directly across from Taiwan. Taiwan’s defense ministry responded Wednesday by warning China of countermeasures if its forces got too close. The actions are ramping up long-simmering tensions between Beijing and the self-governing island — along with its defenders, especially the United States.

The threat of military conflict has long loomed over Taiwan, but the flare-ups have set off a new wave of fears. While domestic, nationalist impetus could explain the sorties, as could a desire to place diplomatic pressure on the United States, Taiwan sees the jet drills as more than a symbolic menace. Beijing could have the capability to launch a “full-scale” invasion of the island by 2025, Taiwan’s defense minister told journalists last week. .

Tensions have escalated since Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party was elected president, leading to a cessation of formal dialogue between Beijing and Taipei.

Taiwan’s premier said Oct. 5 that the island must be on alert for China’s “over the top” military activities. The following day, Taiwan’s defense minister said that military tensions with Beijing were at their worst point in more than four decades.

In a statement, President Biden said that he and China’s Xi Jinping have agreed to follow the “Taiwan agreement,” appearing to be referring to Washington’s long-standing policy under which it officially recognizes Beijing rather than Taipei, and the Taiwan Relations Act, which makes clear that the U.S. decision to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing instead of Taiwan rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.

Following the statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the U.S. commitment to Taiwan remained “rock solid.”

Taiwan's president Tsai Ing-wen on Oct. 7 said that the island seeks to work with other like-minded democracies and will ensure regional peace. (Reuters)

What is Taiwan’s political status?

Taiwan is an island separated from China by the Taiwan Strait. It has an independent, democratically elected government, as well as its own constitution.

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

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.

Historically, the island has been contested. After a brief stint of rule by the Spanish and Dutch in the 17th century, Taiwan was administered by China for two centuries. Following its victory in the First Sino-Japanese War, Japan took the island over as a colony from 1895 to 1945. The island came under the control of the Republic of China at the end of World War II.

After the war, civil war broke out in China between Mao Zedong’s communist forces and Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese nationalist forces — with Mao claiming victory and proclaiming the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and Chiang and his Kuomintang government fleeing for Taiwan.

Despite Taiwan governing itself independently for decades, Beijing considers the island as falling within its territory.

How does the world see the Beijing-Taiwan relationship?

Only 15 remaining partners, all relatively small, maintain formal diplomatic connections with Taiwan — though other countries, including the United States, maintain robust ties with the island.

The United States officially recognized the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s, breaking from recognizing Chiang as China’s leader. Since then, the United States has adopted 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.

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.

The United States also continues to sell arms to Taiwan.

Taiwan is left out of or restricted from full participation in some global organizations: It was expelled from the United Nations after Beijing entered in 1971 — though it continues to seek participation. Even during the pandemic, Taiwan is not part of the World Health Assembly, the World Health Organization’s decision-making body. Blinken in May called for Taiwan’s inclusion in the forum as an observer.

“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 statement.

What could happen next?

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

In December 2016, President-elect Donald Trump phoned Tsai in the first communication between U.S. and Taiwanese leaders since 1979. 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 emphasized that United States will defend and support Taiwan.

This report has been updated.

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