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China-Taiwan tensions: Why China wants Taiwan, how China is reacting to Nancy Pelosi’s visit, and what’s behind their longstanding dispute explained

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US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has drawn Chinese ire, and Beijing has responded by announcing extensive military exercises near the self-governing island.

But Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan – separated from mainland China by a maritime canal and decades of bitter history – is just the latest diplomatic spat between China and the United States over the territory.

Here’s what you need to know about the Taiwan dispute and what it means for Australia.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, left, and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who presented the US politician with the territory’s highest civilian honor. (AP)

How China reacts to Pelosi’s visit

China responded to Pelosi’s trip by launching military drills, which China’s Defense Ministry said began Wednesday with drills in the seas and airspace surrounding Taiwan.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said 27 Chinese warplanes made incursions into the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone and 22 planes crossed the median line separating the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday – a number unprecedented since Taiwan began publicly releasing information about China’s aerial incursions about two years ago.

China has also suspended the import of citrus fruits and some fish products from Taiwan, as well as the export of sand to the island.

Beijing had repeatedly warned of dire consequences if the journey continued – even going so far as to warn US President Joe Biden that those who played with fire would “perish” by him.

China has launched military exercises near Taiwan following a visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Areas marked in red indicate where People’s Liberation Army exercises are taking place. (CNN)

Taiwan’s official name is the Republic of China (ROC), tracing its founding in 1911 on the Chinese mainland after the collapse of China’s last imperial dynasty.

The Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), ruled China until 1949, when it was defeated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) army in a bloody civil war and fled to Taiwan, an island off the southeast coast of mainland China.

Later that same year, Communist leader Mao Zedong declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from Beijing’s Tiananmen Gate.

The two parts have been governed separately ever since, though a shared cultural and linguistic heritage mostly endures – Mandarin being the official language in both places.

After the Communist Party seized power in mainland China in 1949 following a brutal civil war, the Nationalist government fled to Taiwan. But Beijing considered the island part of its territory, and the two sides clashed intermittently over the following decades. (Getty)

Why does China want Taiwan?

Beijing considers Taiwan an inseparable part of its territory – even though the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled the island.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed to pursue “reunification” with Taiwan through peaceful means.

In a speech in 2021, Xi said the biggest obstacle to China’s reunification was the “Taiwan independence” force.

“Those who forget their heritage, betray their homeland and seek to divide the country will be of no avail,” Xi said.

He said he wanted to see peaceful reunification happen under a “one country, two systems” policy, similar to that used in Hong Kong. However, the system of government is generally opposed by Taiwan.

The island territory of Taiwan has been claimed by China since 1949. (New)
Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged to pursue peaceful reunification between China and Taiwan. He also saw a significant increase in Chinese defense spending. (AP)

Taiwan, with a population of over 23 million, has evolved into a vibrant democracy since the 1990s – with the two main political parties, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) trading victories in the presidential elections.

Fifty years ago, the United Nations voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the communist government that took power on the continent as the “sole legitimate representative of China”.

Today, only 14 countries grant diplomatic recognition to Taiwan and therefore have no official ties with China. These are Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, Holy See, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Paraguay, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Swaziland and Tuvalu.

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Fundamentally in 1979, the United States joined a growing list of nations to officially transfer diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

In what is known as the “One China” policy, Washington recognizes the PRC as China’s only legitimate government; it also acknowledges Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never accepted the CCP’s claim to sovereignty over the island.

Meanwhile, the United States continues to maintain close unofficial ties with Taiwan under the decades-old Taiwan Relations Act, facilitating trade, cultural and other exchanges through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) – the de facto U.S. Embassy in Taipei.

A Taiwanese warship fires an anti-aircraft missile during naval exercises on the island’s east coast in July 2022. (AP)

Does China have the ability to invade Taiwan?

China, after years of increased military spending, now has the world’s second-largest defense budget behind the United States, totaling around $290 billion this year. This has enabled the development of advanced weapon systems, including the J-20 stealth fighter, hypersonic missiles and two aircraft carriers, with a third under construction.

China’s tacit support for Russia’s war on Ukraine has fueled speculation about its intentions with Taiwan, raising questions about how the world might react if it launched an attack.

Since Russia sent its troops to Ukraine on February 24, China has adamantly refused to criticize Russia’s action, accusing the United States and NATO of provoking Moscow, and lambasted the punitive sanctions imposed. in Moscow.

Concerns about a possible invasion prompted the Taiwanese government to step up its combat readiness and wartime preparedness.

A study released last year by the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission said China had beefed up its arsenal of new missiles and amphibious ships – critical weapons needed any crossing of the 200 km long Taiwan Strait to the island.

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US President Joe Biden has warned that US military forces will defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack. (AP)

What is the role of the United States in the defense of Taiwan?

Washington’s longstanding policy has been to provide political and military support to Taiwan, without explicitly promising to defend it against Chinese attack.

In May 2022, US President Joe Biden’s warning that the United States would defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression made headlines around the world – and brought back into the spotlight the growing tensions between the small Democratic island and its neighboring autocratic superpower.

Although the United States has no bases in Taiwan, US officials confirmed last year that special forces had been training with the Taiwanese military for more than a year, including maritime operations with Navy commandos in recent weeks.

US military support for Taiwan is “based on an assessment of Taiwan’s defense needs and the threat posed by” China, Pentagon spokesman John Supple said.

What is Australia’s position?

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese called for stability and de-escalation after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

Albanese was speaking on Wednesday when he launched a major defense review of the Australian Armed Forces.

“We live in a time when there is strategic competition and heightened tension in our region,” Albanese said.

“And where China has taken a more aggressive stance in the region. But our position on Taiwan is clear.

“We don’t want to see any unilateral change to the status quo. And we will continue to work with partners to promote peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

The Taiwanese armed forces are on high alert in the face of rising tensions with China. (AP)

Defense Minister Richard Marles later said the federal government was monitoring the situation after Pelosi’s visit.

Many security experts believe Washington would expect some military support from Canberra if China attacked Taiwan.

Last year, former defense minister Peter Dutton said The Australian newspaper that if the United States were to deploy military forces to defend Taiwan, it would be “inconceivable” that Australia would not follow suit.

And former Prime Minister Tony Abbott denounced the Chinese regime in a provocative speech delivered in Taiwan last October.

He called President Xi Jinping the “new Red Emperor” as he spoke at a national security forum attended by the president and Taiwan’s foreign minister.

For decades, Australian governments have mirrored US policy by not publicly announcing whether they would come to Taiwan’s aid if the island were attacked by China.

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