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Taiwan, or the Republic of China, as its constitution officially names it, is an island of 24 million people, with a democratic system of government. Its transition to democracy is fairly recent. Between 1949 and 1987 Taiwan was under martial law, and it held its first presidential election in 1996.

Taiwan is located in the South China Sea approximately 100 miles off the coast of mainland China.

The People’s Republic of China, with a population of 1.4 billion people, is a one-party state led by the Communist Party of China (CPC) on mainland China.

This briefing looks at Taiwan’s relationship with China. Their shared history, respective policies, including the ‘One China’ principle, and recent military tensions.

 ‘One China’ principle

The People’s Republic of China considers Taiwan a breakaway province that must return to the mainland’s control. Taiwan does not officially recognise the People’s Republic, and its constitution still asserts sovereignty over mainland China. This is due to a complex shared history between the two territories.

The ‘One China’ principle is central to the People’s Republic of China’s approach to Taiwan. This policy maintains that mainland China and Taiwan are one and sovereignty cannot be divided.

Under Chiang Kai-shek, the military leader who led Taiwan for much of its martial law period, his Kuomintang (KMT) party was committed to its own One China policy, claiming to be the sole legitimate government of all China, and to retaking the mainland. Chiang and the KMT fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the Chinese Civil War against the Communists.

In 2000, Taiwan’s leadership began to challenge the concept due to concerns about its detrimental impact on Taiwan’s profile and position on the international stage.

China and the use of force against Taiwan

Over the last few decades, social, economic and cultural ties have flourished between the Republic of China and the People’s Republic.

However, ‘cross-strait relations’ (named after the Taiwan Strait separating the two territories), are still dominated by diplomatic competition and geopolitical and military tensions.

Taiwan’s reunification with mainland China—or ‘the Taiwan question’—remains a central objective of the CPC.

In 1979, China’s leadership shifted its Taiwan policy away from ‘armed liberation’, proposing a new era of ‘peaceful coexistence’, and stepping back from regular military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. However, the People’s Republic of China never renounced the use of force if necessary to achieve reunification.

These elements are formalised in China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law. 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 People’s Republic 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”.

Party politics in Taiwan and Taiwanese identity

There are two main political parties in Taiwan. The KMT is now committed to democratic politics. It has generally supported closer ties with the People’s Republic in the last few decades, and firmly rejects any move for Taiwan to declare formal independence from China.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was formed in the 1980s and first took power in 2000 after Taiwan’s second presidential election which resulted in its first peaceful democratic transfer of power to an opposition party. The DPP is the party of Taiwan’s current government and President Tsai Ing-wen.

The DPP was founded as a movement that supported Taiwanese independence. However, under the leadership of Tsai, the DPP no longer calls for declaring formal independence, but rather states that Taiwan is already functionally independent. In a 2020 interview with the BBC she said: “We don’t have a need to declare ourselves an independent state…We are an independent country already and we call ourselves the Republic of China (Taiwan)”. Tsai rejects the PRC’s ‘One China’ principle.

The DPP’s political rise has gone hand in hand with an increasing sense of  Taiwanese national identity on the island, with the majority of the population identifying primarily as Taiwanese (nearly 63% of people surveyed by the Election Study Centre at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University in June 2023).

There is also significant support for the status quo of Taiwan’s relationship with China (85% of people surveyed by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council in 2021). Far fewer people support making fresh moves for Taiwanese independence (around 7%), and even fewer support unification with the mainland (around 2%).

Current tensions and military build-up

In October 2022 the People’s Republic of China held its 20th Party Congress. China’s President Xi Jinping stated in his opening speech to the Congress that “Reunification of the motherland must be achieved and will be achieved”.

In line with the anti-secession law, Xi said: “we will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary”.

Since 2020 China has increased its military exercises around Taiwan, and since late 2020 has been sending, on a near daily basis, military aircraft across the “median line”, an unofficial marker between the two territories in the Taiwan Strait.

In August 2022, in response to the visit of the then US Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan, China held a series of military drills that eclipsed even the exercises that took place during the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis.

Taiwan has been increasing spending on its military and in December 2022 announced it was increasing the required period of compulsory military service from four months to one year for new recruits in response to the greater threat posed by China.

Further reading

For more on Taiwan see Library research briefings:

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