President Joe Biden’s repeated statements that Washington would defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion have provoked Beijing’s anger – and brought confusion to a US foreign policy stance that is deliberately designed to be ambiguous.
Here is a summary of why the relationship between the United States, China and Taiwan is so delicate:
The deep rift between Beijing and Taiwan dates back to China’s civil war, which broke out in 1927 and put forces in line with China’s Communist Party against the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) army.
Eventually defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communists, KMT chief Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, which was still under his control.
From there, Chiang continued to claim all of China – just as the mainland claimed that Taiwan as part of its territory should one day be recaptured.
Taiwan’s official name remains the Republic of China, while the mainland is the People’s Republic of China.
For years, both sides still claimed to formally represent the whole of China, even though that landscape has changed in recent decades.
Since the late 1990s, Taiwan has transformed from an autocracy to a vibrant democracy, and a clear Taiwanese identity has emerged.
The current ruling party, led by President Tsai Ing-wen, regards Taiwan as a sovereign nation, not part of China.
Washington severed formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979 and shifted recognition to Beijing as the sole representative of China, where the mainland became an important trading partner.
But at the same time, the United States maintained a crucial, albeit sometimes delicate, role in supporting Taiwan.
Under a law passed by Congress, the United States is obliged to sell Taiwan’s military supplies to secure its self-defense against Beijing’s far larger armed forces.
But it has maintained a “strategic ambiguity” as to whether it would actually intervene militarily, a policy designed both to ward off a Chinese invasion and to deter Taiwan from ever formally declaring independence.
There is now a growing bipartisan discussion in Washington about whether a shift to “strategic clarity” is preferable given Beijing’s increasingly belligerent approach to cross-strait relations.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has increased fears that China may one day follow up on threats to annex its smaller neighbor.
When Biden was asked in Tokyo on Monday whether the United States would engage militarily to defend Taiwan, he replied in the affirmative, adding: “That is the commitment we have made.”
But the White House and the Pentagon moved quickly afterwards to state that U.S. policy “has not changed” on Taiwan.
Biden has previously made similar remarks in lower profile settings, which were also later clarified in the same way.
‘A China’ policy
US policy toward Taiwan has always relied on diplomatic nuances.
In what is called “A China policy,” Washington recognizes Beijing, but only recognizes the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China.
It leaves it to the two sides to find a solution, while opposing any use of force to change the status quo.
In practice, Taiwan enjoys many of the benefits of a fully diplomatic relationship with the United States.
While there is no US embassy in Taipei, Washington operates a center called the American Institute in Taiwan.
In the United States, the island’s diplomats enjoy the status of staff of other nations.
Only 14 nations, all in developing countries, and the Vatican still recognize Taiwan.
Beijing has persistently tried to stop any international recognition of the island.
It shudders any use of the word Taiwan, as when Lithuania allowed Taipei to open a de facto embassy under its own name last year so it could not give the island a sense of legitimacy on the global stage.
The United States and a growing number of countries have been pushing for Taiwan to be included in UN bodies such as World The Health Organization (WHO).
Taipei accused Beijing of “bullying” on Monday after the WHO annual meeting refused to discuss the admission of Taiwan as an observer, despite support from several countries, following pressure from China.