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History and domestic politics

Taiwan is an island in the South China Sea, around 100 miles off the coast of China on which nearly 24 million people live. The Communist Party-controlled People’s Republic of China (PRC) considers Taiwan as a breakaway province that must return to the mainland’s control.

According to Taiwan’s constitution its official name is the Republic of China (ROC). This is a remnant of a political entity formed on the Chinese mainland more than 100 years ago.  The ROC does not officially recognise the PRC, and its constitution still asserts sovereignty over mainland China.

Countries and international organisations will often refer to Taiwan officially by the name of its capital, Taipei, or sometimes Chinese Taipei.

Taiwan was administered by China’s Qing dynasty from 1683 to 1895. In 1895, Japan won the First Sino-Japanese War, and the Qing government had to cede Taiwan to Japan.

After the Japanese surrender at the end of World War Two, the Republic of China Government took control of the island of Taiwan.

Civil war broke out in China between the ROC government led by the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) and Communist Party forces. The Chinese ended civil war in 1949, when the defeated Kuomintang nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to the island as the Communists, under Mao Zedong, took power in the mainland.

Chiang Kai-shek, formed an effective military dictatorship, putting Taiwan under martial law. Its leadership was for decades dominated by those who fled from the Chinese mainland. Chiang led an economic transformation on the island, putting it on a path to become the leading economy it is today with advanced manufacturing capabilities.

In the 1980’s Taiwan began to transition to a democracy, removing martial law and the ban on opposition parties.

Today the island is a thriving democracy with competitive elections and is currently led by Tsai Ing-wen, its first female president, whose Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supports autonomy for Taiwan.

International recognition and membership of international organisations

China insists that countries cannot have diplomatic relations with both it and Taiwan and has successfully pressured most countries into breaking off diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. Currently only around 15 countries in the world have formal diplomatic relations with Taipei.

Taiwan, sitting as the ROC, held China’s seat at the United Nations until 1971, when the body recognised the People’s Republic of China as the only lawful representative of China, and expelled the ROC’s delegation.

In recent years China has also increased its efforts in blocking Taiwan’s participation in international organisations, even as an observer. Since 2016 this has included Taiwan’s attendance at the World Health Assembly (WHA), the annual decision-making forum of the World Health Organisation, which has received particular attention in recent years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Relations with China

The PRC maintains that mainland China and Taiwan are parts of “one China” whose sovereignty cannot be divided.

China passed an Anti-Secession Law in 2005 . The law commits Beijing to “do its utmost with maximum sincerity to achieve a peaceful unification” with Taiwan. It states, however, that in the case of Taiwan’s “secession” from China, or if the PRC concludes that possibilities for peaceful unification have been exhausted, “the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Relations between Taiwan and China improved significantly between 2008 and 2016. However, the election of the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen as President in 2016, who does not endorse the PRC’s “One China” policy and has recently stated that Taiwan is “already an independent country”, along with a more assertive stance from China under President Xi Jinping, have seen a significant deterioration in relations.

Over the last few years military tensions have escalated rapidly, and 2020 saw the highest number of Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) since 1996. This has fuelled speculation that conflict could erupt between the two sides.

Most analysts do not believe military action by China is likely in the short term. However, increased tensions and a lack of contacts between the two sides mean that there is a significant risk that a confrontation could emerge through accident or misunderstanding.

Relations with the UK

The UK, like most other countries, does not recognise Taiwan, nor maintain formal diplomatic relations with the island.  The UK says the dispute between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China should be resolved “through dialogue, in line with the views of the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait”. It has no plans to recognise Taiwan as a state. The UK does support Taiwan’s participation in international organisations as an observer.

The UK’s diplomatic presence on the island is maintained through an outpost call the “British Office Taipei”. The subject on which the UK and Taiwan most regularly engage is trade, and the two sides hold annual rounds of trade talks. In 2020, the UK exported £2.4 billion of goods and services to Taiwan and imported £3.6 billion. Taiwan was the UK’s 39th largest export market, accounting for 0.4% of UK exports of goods and services and the 30th largest source of imports, accounting for 0.7% of the UK’s imported goods and services.

There is now a greater focus on the UK’s foreign and defence policy towards Taiwan and the surrounding region. This is in part because of the recent Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, that said the UK would  “tilt to the Indo-Pacific” region. The review also described China as a “systemic competitor”. The UK’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, recently embarked on its first deployment lasting eight months, and it has been reported that “its centrepiece” will be “a freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea”, fuelling speculation it could sail through the Taiwan Strait between the island and China.

Relevant papers

For information on Taiwan and the United States, see our briefing paper Taiwan: Relations with the United States

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