Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

Understanding the nature of US-Taiwan Relations


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: NA

Mains level: Taiwan as a new global flashpoint

The US President made a controversial statement on whether the US will come to the aid of Taiwan militarily in case of an invasion by China.

What is the Taiwan issue?

  • Taiwan is an island territory located off the coast of mainland China, across the Taiwan Strait.
  • After their defeat to the communist forces in the Chinese civil war (1945-1949), the ruling Kuomintang (Nationalist) government of China fled to Taiwan.
  • They transplanted the Republic of China (ROC) government in Taiwan, while the Communist Party of China (CPC) established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the mainland.
  • Since then, the PRC considers the island as a renegade province awaiting reunification by peaceful means, if possible.

Game changer: Cold war affiliations

  • Meanwhile, the ROC retained its membership at the United Nations and its permanent seat at the UN Security Council (UNSC).
  • The cross-strait relations became strained as a result of the Cold War, with the PRC allying itself with the Soviet Union (USSR) and ROC with the U.S.
  • This resulted in the two Taiwan Strait crises of the 1950s.

The US and One-China Principle

  • With the shifting geopolitics of the Cold War, the PRC and the U.S. were forced to come together in the 1970s to counter the growing influence of the USSR.
  • This led to the US-China rapprochement demonstrated by the historic visit of then US President Richard Nixon to PRC in 1972.
  • The same year, the PRC displaced ROC as the official representative of the Chinese nation at the UN.
  • Diplomatic relations with the PRC became possible only if countries abided by its “One China Principle” — recognizing PRC and not the ROC as China.

Rise of Taiwan

  • Taiwan transitioned from a single party state to a multi-party democracy.
  • At the same time that China reformed its economic system under Deng Xiaoping, and by the end of the Cold War they became economically entangled.
  • Nevertheless, they continue to compete for international recognition and preparing themselves for the worst possible scenario.

How has the US’s stance on the Taiwan question evolved vis-à-vis China?

  • The very foundation of the US rapprochement as well as its recognition of the PRC is a mutual understanding on the Taiwan question.
  • This has been outlined in three documents — the Shanghai Communique (1972), the Normalisation Communique (1979) and the 1982 Communique.
  • According to the 1972 communique, the US agreed to the ‘one China principle’, with an understanding that it “acknowledges” and “does not challenge” that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait.
  • It maintained that there is one China and Taiwan is a part of China.
  • However, the US also established unofficial relations with Taiwan through this communique in the name of the people of both the countries.

 Why is the issue significant today?

  • As Taiwan’s democracy flourished, the popular mood drifted towards a new Taiwanese identity and a pro-independence stance on sovereignty.
  • The past decade has seen considerable souring of ties across the Strait, as the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) became the most powerful political force in Taiwan.
  • The DPP government has been catering to the pro-independence constituency in Taiwan and seeks to diversify economic relations away from China.
  • China has always seen Taiwan as a territory with high geopolitical significance.
  • This is due to its central location in the First Island Chain between Japan and the South China Sea, which is seen as the first benchmark or barrier for China’s power projection.

Why is China so obsessed with Taiwan?

  • Taiwan is at China’s geostrategic calculus.
  • Moreover, its reunification will formally bury the remaining ghosts of China’s “century of humiliation”.
  • China under Xi Jinping seems to have lost its patience and currently sees very slim chances of a peaceful reunification.
  • China usually makes aerial transgressions in Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ).
  • Also, this build-up of tensions is happening simultaneously and drawing parallels with the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

Is US strategy towards Taiwan witnessing a major transformation?

  • The US strategy towards Taiwan in light of the unresolved nature of the cross-Strait relations has been marked by what has been called “strategic ambiguity”.
  • This is under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979.
  • As per the TRA, the US has stated clearly that the establishment of bilateral relations with the PRC rests upon “the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means”.
  • It also states the US policy 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.
  • Hence, there is no clear guarantee here that the US will militarily involve in a situation where China attempts to invade Taiwan, short of supplying “defensive weapons”.

Enjoying the ambiguity

  • The US has for long utilized this strategic ambiguity with its own interpretation of the ‘one China principle to maintain its strategic interests in the Western Pacific.
  • It is in this context that Mr. Biden’s statements have made controversy.


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