Heightened tensions: China and Taiwan's relationship explained

Yahoo News Explains. See the latest.
Yahoo News Explains. See the latest.

China’s foreign minister on Thursday condemned U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan as “infringing on China’s sovereignty” and is threatening to effectively blockade the island in response.

Pelosi was the highest-ranking elected U.S. official to visit Taiwan — officially known as the Republic of China — in 25 years. “Our delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy,” she said in a tweet on Tuesday.

In response, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered the People’s Liberation Army to conduct military drills in the Taiwan Strait and even launched ballistic missiles into waters northeast and southwest of Taiwan’s coasts.

Two people in a beauty salon watch a television showing fighter jets in an apparent Chinese language news report.
A customer and a staff member at a beauty salon in Taipei, Taiwan, watch a news report Thursday on the recent tensions between China and Taiwan. (Chiang Ying-ying/AP)

As China heightens tensions with neighboring Taiwan, Yahoo News spoke with several experts to break down the complex relationship between the two countries.

Where is Taiwan?

Taiwan is an island located in the Pacific Ocean between the East China Sea and the South China Sea. It lies just 100 miles from mainland China and has a population of around 23 million. At about the size of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut combined, this makes it the 17th most densely populated country in the world.

What is Taiwan’s history with China?

The island was handed over to the Japanese in 1895 after China lost the first Sino-Japanese war. Japan would occupy Taiwan as well as an archipelago of 90 islands located in the Taiwan Strait until the end of the Second World War.

Taiwan was then occupied by the Allied powers. The soldiers who were sent to the island were from the Nationalist Party of China, known as the Kuomintang (KMT).

Four years later, the KMT withdrew to Taiwan after it lost a civil war with the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong. Close to 1.5 million people from mainland China fled to Taiwan. The KMT and its leader, Chiang Kai-shek, would rule Taiwan for several decades.

In this black-and-white photo, President Chiang Kai-shek stands in the back of a vintage Buick convertible facing dozens of troops, who stand at attention.
President Chiang Kai-shek of Nationalist China reviews his crack troops in Taipei in 1955. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)

In the post-Mao era of the 1980s, China’s then-leader Deng Xiaoping wanted to build up a maritime defense policy and created the concept of the “First Island Chain.” Professor Steve Tsang, the Director of the SOAS China Institute in London, told Yahoo News that Taiwan was in the middle of this defense chain. “They intended to secure that defensive line, but they couldn't actually do anything until the last few years.”

What relationship does China have with Taiwan now?

“China has a very strong economic relationship with Taiwan,” Tsang told Yahoo News. “China is probably Taiwan’s biggest economic trading partner. Taiwan is a major investor in China, particularly in terms of a lot of consumer manual productions, consumer goods, manufacturing, and high-tech manufacturing in China.”

Aerial view of a container yard with hundreds of shipping containers.
The container yard at Taicang Container Terminal in Suzhou, in China's Jiangsu province, on June 12. (CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

How does China view Taiwan?

Taiwan and mainland China, which is formally known as the People’s Republic of China, have long had separate governments. China claims to view Taiwan as a renegade province and has repeatedly threatened to invade the island since Chiang Kai-shek and his forces fled there in 1949.

However, the situation in the Taiwan Strait has become especially fraught over the last decade as China has become more powerful and aggressive under Xi Jinping. In 2017, Xi announced that “reunification” of Taiwan and China would be “an inevitable requirement for realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Two years later, he again said that Taiwan’s unification with the mainland was “inevitable.”

Xi Jinping stands at a podium with microphones.
Chinese President Xi Jinping at the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing in 2017. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

More recently, in April, China’s vice foreign minister said the so-called national reunification would “not be stopped by anyone or any force.” This appeared to be a warning to the U.S., which has long held out the possibility that it would rush to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese attack.

How does Taiwan view itself?

Taiwan is effectively a sovereign state. It has its own currency as well as its own political and judicial systems. A central divide between its two main political parties involves whether Taiwan should declare independence or seek closer ties with mainland China.

A few dozen people stand on stage in front of a large screen with an image of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, also known as Captain Taiwan, on a screen before being introduced on stage during a congress of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taipei on July 17. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

Since 2016, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has repeatedly said that the island is self-governing and should not submit to Chinese demands. Her reelection in 2020 alarmed Beijing, which had hoped the Taiwanese would choose a government more malleable to reunification.

Could Pelosi’s visit undermine peace and stability in Taiwan?

“Well, it’s undermining stability with China,” Dr. Matthew Schmidt, the director of international affairs and an associate professor of national security at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut, told Yahoo News. “As for stability in Taiwan, I’m not sure it makes it any worse than it has been right now.”

Nancy Pelosi stands at a podium with a microphone next to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, seated. Both wear face masks.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks after receiving the Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon, Taiwan's highest civilian honor, from Tsai on Wednesday. (Handout/Getty Images)

As for other countries affected by the House speaker’s trip, Schmidt said Ukraine could fall into the mix. “China had so far abided by the agreement not to sell Russia weapons, but they could start to do that now in retaliation for Pelosi’s visit,” he said.

What was China’s response to Pelosi’s visit?

Wang Yi, China’s state councilor and foreign minister, said the visit was an “outright farce.” He continued: “Under the guise of democracy, the U.S. is infringing on China’s sovereignty. Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen and those of her ilk try to rely on the power of the U.S. [to protect Taiwanese sovereignty], which betrays the overall national interest of China.”

The Taiwan Defense Ministry claimed that China’s military drills around the island following Pelosi’s arrival had broken U.N. rules after encroaching on the island’s territory. China also fired missiles into the sea near Taiwan’s coastlines.

Missile being launched from grassy field near trees and hills.
In a photo released on Thursday, forces of China's People's Liberation Army conduct a live-fire drill into the Taiwan Strait from an undisclosed location. (Eastern Theatre Command/Handout via Reuters)

Should there be concern over China’s latest military drills?

According to Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the American global-policy think tank RAND Corporation, the Chinese drills should not be seen as especially alarming.

“The real challenge for China would be getting the troops across the Strait,” Heath told Yahoo News. “They would need to have in place a huge number of troops and transport, and that is going to be very obvious to an observer.”

Is there a possibility that China could invade Taiwan?

“I regard that as extremely unlikely,” Heath told Yahoo News. He maintained that Xi will be focusing on the Communist Party leadership conference in the fall and will be hoping for a third term as China’s ruler.

“He needs to demonstrate effective leadership, [and] provoking a war with the U.S. would severely undermine his credibility due to the damage that could cause,” Heath said.

People with sun umbrellas stand on an arched, elevated walkway along a rocky coast facing a flying helicopter.
Tourists look on as a Chinese military helicopter flies past Pingtan island, one of mainland China's closest points from Taiwan, on Thursday. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

What countries recognize Taiwan?

Only 13 other nations and Vatican City recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country. However, dozens of other countries have unofficial diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The U.S. stopped formally recognizing it as the legitimate government of China in the 1970s but still sells the island military equipment and maintains unofficial relations with its government.

China has been slowly eroding Taiwan’s diplomatic recognition, Tsang told Yahoo News, and “with the substantial increase in China's economic and military and other power in the last 40 years, it has now become completely overwhelming.”

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and Marshall Islands President David Kabua walk along a red carpet while a few dozen troops with white helmets, blue face masks, and rifles with bayonets stand at attention.
Taiwanese President Tsai and visiting Marshall Islands President David Kabua inspect honor guards in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei on March 22. (Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)

He added: “China can dictate terms to most countries in terms of their relationship with Taiwan, and will not allow any government to have a formal relationship with Taiwan — with exceptions of major Western industrialized countries.”

Both large companies and celebrities have come under fire from Beijing for stating that Taiwan is a country. Actor John Cena, for example, became embroiled in controversy with Beijing during a press tour in 2021 when he said Taiwan would be the first “country” to watch “Fast and Furious 9.”

Later, Cena filmed an apology in Chinese. “I am very sorry for my mistake. I am so sorry, I apologize,” he said.