Faculty of Humanities

Worth knowing about the Taiwan-China conflict

Nancy Pelosi was in Taiwan for barely a day. China responded with a massive military exercise in the waters around the island. What is Chinas mission? Postdoc fellow in Chinese studies and Taiwan expert Julia Marinaccio explains.

Kart over Kina og Taiwan hvor en leketanks står på Fastlands-Kina og peker mot Taiwan
Kina ser på Taiwan som en frafallen provins som må gjenforenes med fastlandet, med makt om nødvendig.

Main content

How are Taiwan and China historically connected?

The origin of today’s conflict between Taiwan and China lies in the early 20th century. Following the downfall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, a strong and violent rivalry crystalized between two main political parties: the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party. It culminated in a fully-fledged civil war that the Communists eventually won in 1949. While Communists proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China in Beijing, the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan, where it established the Republic of China with Taipei as its capital. For a long time, both sides insisted that there was only one China, and both claimed to be its sole legitimate representative. The Republic of China formally renounced its intention to reconquer the mainland in 1991 as part of its democratic transition. In contrast, the Chinese Communist Party, which continues to rule the People's Republic of China until today, has maintained its claim of authority over Taiwan, considering it an undividable part of its territory.

Is Taiwan a sovereign state?

Today, the Republic of China exercises de facto sovereignty over a territory that includes the island group Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu, and some smaller islands. It possesses a fully functional territorial administration and a democratic political system. And it sustains bilateral consular, trade, and cultural relations with numerous countries worldwide, including the US and the EU. Representative offices are installed in Taiwan and foreign countries. Nevertheless, Taiwan has not de jure independence. Moreover, due to Beijing's diplomatic pressures, it is limited in signing international free trade agreements and cannot join international organizations.

How does Taiwan sustain official relations with foreign countries?

Foreign countries' diplomatic relations with China and Taiwan are based on the so-called "One China Policy." It refers to a tacit understanding in international relations that only one legal representative of China exists. Thus, foreign governments can maintain diplomatic relations with either the Republic of China (Taiwan) or the People's Republic of China. The "One-China Principle", on the other hand, is Beijing's assertion it is the only legal representative, and Taiwan is a province of China. While most states, including Norway, maintain diplomatic relations with China (only 12 states have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan), they do not necessarily agree with Beijing's narrative of the "One-China Principle" and, by extension, the claim that Taiwan should be denied the right to join international organizations or sign treaties. Moreover, how foreign governments operationalize the One-China Policy and the extent of their engagement with Taiwan vary greatly.

Do Taiwanese people differ from Chinese people?

Due to its history of colonialization and occupation, identity has long been a critical social and political issue in Taiwan. In recent history, democratization and generational change have given rise to the emergence of a Taiwanese national identity that stands in strong opposition to a cultural "Chinese" identity that refers to a common cultural origin and shared ancestry between people living in Taiwan and China. China's increasingly assertive attitude and efforts to restrict Taiwan's action frame have led to a further strengthening of Taiwanese identity. Today, 63.3 percent describe themselves as "Taiwanese" in contrast to 31.4 who feel "Taiwanese and Chinese." Moreover, the share of people who refer to themselves as "Chinese" decreased from 25.5 percent in 1992 to 2.7 percent in 2021.

Are there political forces advocating independence in Taiwan, and what is the current government's position?

Many political parties have been established in Taiwan since its democratic transition in the 1980s and 1990s. Historically, political movements were divided over the question of how to fashion relations with China. While one political camp has traditionally favored closer and more friendly relations with China, the other has advocated less engagement and a more assertive political stance regarding Taiwan's rightful place in the international community. At the national level, these movements are spearheaded by Taiwan's two main political parties: The Kuomintang, which used to rule Taiwan under an authoritarian leadership until 1991, and the Democratic Progressive Party, which developed from a democratic opposition movement into an established political party. Over the past decades, both parties have moved their political positions into the middle, and most people in Taiwan accept the status quo. Still, both parties need to respond to shares of party members and electorates that demand stronger positions vis-à-vis rapprochement or disengagement. China's increasingly assertive demeanor and recent measures to further limit Taiwan's spheres of action have led to frictions, making this act of balance more complicated for current political leaders.

What is the current government's position on independence?

The current DPP president Tsai Ing-wen has repeatedly emphasized that under her presidency, Taiwan does not seek formal independence but a peaceful coexistence with China that allows both sides to thrive socially and economically. Yet she firmly rejects China's plans to use its model for Hongkong ("One Country, Two Systems") to be applied to Taiwan. She has repeatedly emphasized that Taiwan is "an independent country", "with a separate identity", deserving "respect from China."

Why was Nancy Pelosi's visit controversial?

Nancy Pelosi's visit occurred in the context of long-strained US-China relations and in a year in which two important political events will take place in both China and Taiwan. In China, the Chinese Communist Party has been in full preparations for the 20th Party Congress to be held in October/November, at which the current president Xi Jinping wants to secure his third term. In the run-up of such events, the party is always on high alert, avoiding any form of instability, including negative news. In Taiwan, citizens will be called to the ballots in late November. In the "Nine-in-One Elections", they will elect their mayors and counselors at the municipality, county, township, and village levels. Election campaigns are now in full swing, and the outcomes of these elections will be indicative of the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in two years. Both sides follow these political events closely, as they will likely affect cross-Strait relations. It is against this backdrop that some observers worried about the potential consequences of Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan.

Why did Beijing react so strongly to Nancy Pelosi's visit?

The One-China Policy is an informal institution in international relations that allows for flexibility in how foreign governments manage their relations with China and Taiwan. At the same time, it provides the PRC with the same flexibility to decide on how to respond to these actions. Both the policy and China's responses are in constant flux and depend on various political external and internal factors. Some observers explain China's reactions to its ambitions to demonstrate itself as a world power, particularly vis-à-vis the US. Others emphasize domestic politics as a critical factor, especially the Chinese leadership's struggle to reconcile Covid-19 pandemic management with getting its economy back on track. And still other analysts think that the mixed signals from Washington have upset China. They warn that this perception would continue to pressure the Chinese leadership into action to make its standpoint clear that Taiwan is not an issue of compromise for them.