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Taiwan, or the Republic of China, as named in its constitution, is located in the South China Sea approximately 100 miles off the coast of mainland China.

There are 13 countries that recognise Taiwan as a state, which does not include the United States. The US is, however, an important ally and has in recent years become more openly supportive of Taiwan as its relationship with the People’s Republic of China has soured.

US, Taiwan and China history

The United States’ relationship with Taiwan is intertwined with its relationship to China.

The US is one of Taiwan’s most important allies and its most effective bulwark against Chinese diplomatic and military pressure.

The Republic of China was the state founded in mainland China in 1912, and the US was one of its principal backers during and after the Chinese Civil War it fought against the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), on and off between 1927 and 1949.

After a CPC victory in 1949, the Republic of China government and its backers fled to Taiwan. In the same year the CPC formed the People’s Republic of China, which was formed by the Communists in the same year and the US refused to recognise it.

US normalises relations with People’s Republic of China

As part of President Nixon’s policy of “détente” during the Cold War, the US sought to normalise relations with China. This policy came to fruition in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter established full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China and terminated its formal diplomatic relations with the Republic of China government in Taiwan.

US Taiwan policy and strategic ambiguity

The relationship between Taiwan and the US is regulated by three joint communiqués it agreed with China in 1972, 1979 and 1982, the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress in 1979, and “six guarantees” President Reagan made to the government in Taipei (Taiwan’s capital) in the 1980s.

Taken together these documents maintain an overarching policy of what is often called “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan.

Strategic ambiguity” involves the US acknowledging the People’s Republic of China’s ‘One China’ principle, without actively endorsing it, and stating it wishes to help find a peaceful solution between China and Taiwan. The US continues to sell arms to Taiwan, and Washington commits in the Taiwan Relations Act to “maintain the capacity… to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardise the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan”.

US military intervention policy

The US is not obliged to come to the defence of Taiwan, should it be attacked, and past administrations have not specified whether the US would intervene in such a situation. The strategy aims to dissuade Taiwan from declaring formal independence and the People’s Republic from using direct force against the island to achieve “reunification”.

President Trump’s policy

Under President Trump US policy towards Taiwan became less ambiguous and more overtly supportive.

This was in large part due to the deteriorating relations between China and America. Mr Trump increased military support to Taiwan including naval operations in the Taiwan Strait, sent senior officials to the island, and his Secretary of State relaxed restrictions on meetings between US diplomats and Taipei representatives.

Nancy Pelosi’s visit

A visit by the then Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan in August 2022, triggered a furious response from China which launched military exercises surrounding Taiwan at a scale not seen since the 1995 to 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis.

President Biden’s policy: Closer relations with Taiwan

President Biden’s administration has maintained President Trump’s policy of closer relations with Taiwan, continuing naval operations in the Taiwan Strait, and further relaxing policies on meetings between officials.

On several occasions President Biden has stated the US would intervene militarily if China invaded Taiwan.  Each time his office has claimed there has been no change in official US policy, despite these comments seeming to make a commitment to come to Taiwan’s defence, when previously there was none.

Further reading

For more on Taiwan see Library research briefings:

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