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The visit by United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan has drawn the wrath of China, with Beijing responding by announcing extensive military exercises near the self-governing island.
But Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan – divided from the Chinese mainland by a sea channel and decades of bitter history – is only the latest diplomatic row between China and the US over the territory.
Here is what you need to know about the Taiwan dispute and what it means for Australia.
How is China responding to Pelosi’s visit
China responded to Pelosi’s trip launching military exercises, which China’s Ministry of Defence said began on Wednesday with drills in both the seas and airspace surrounding Taiwan.
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence said 27 Chinese warplanes made incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, and 22 planes crossed the median line dividing the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday – an unprecedented number since Taiwan began publicly releasing information about China’s air incursions about two years ago.
China 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 should the trip go ahead – even going as far as to warn US President Joe Biden that those who played with fire would “perish” by it.
Taiwan’s official name is the Republic of China (ROC), tracing its founding to 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 army of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in a bloody civil war and fled to Taiwan, an island off the southeastern coast of mainland China.
Later that same year, Communist leader Mao Zedong declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from Tiananmen Gate in Beijing.
The two sides have been governed separately since, though a shared cultural and linguistic heritage mostly endures – with Mandarin spoken as the official language in both places.
Why does China want Taiwan?
Beijing views Taiwan as an inseparable part of its territory – even though the Chinese Communist Party has never governed the island.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed to pursue “reunification” with Taiwan by peaceful means.
In a speech in 2021, Xi said the biggest obstacle to the reunification of China was the “Taiwan independence” force.
“Those who forget their heritage, betray their motherland and seek to split the country will come to no good,” Xi said.
He said he wanted to see peaceful reunification occur under a “one country two systems” policy, similar to that used in Hong Kong. However the system of government is generally opposed by Taiwan.
Taiwan, with a population of more than 23 million people, has become 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 presidential elections.
Fifty years ago, the United Nations voted to recognise the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Communist government that took power in the mainland as the “only legitimate representative of China”.
Today only 14 nations give diplomatic recognition to Taiwan, and thus do not have official ties with China. They are: Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, Holy See, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Paraguay, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Swaziland and Tuvalu.
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Crucially in 1979, the US joined a growing list of nations to formally switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
In what is known as the “One China” policy, Washington recognises the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China; it also acknowledges Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never accepted the CCP’s claim of sovereignty over the island.
Meanwhile, the US continues to retain close unofficial ties with Taiwan under the terms of the decades-old Taiwan Relations Act, facilitating commercial, cultural and other exchanges through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) – the de facto US Embassy in Taipei.
Does China have the capability to invade Taiwan?
China, after years of rising military spending, now boasts the world’s second-largest defence budget behind the US, totalling about $290 billion this year. That has allowed the development of advanced weapons 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 fuelled speculation over its intentions with Taiwan, raising questions about how the world might react should it launch an attack.
Since Russia sent its troops into Ukraine on February 24, China has pointedly refused to criticize Russia’s action, blaming the US and NATO for provoking Moscow, and has blasted punishing sanctions imposed on Moscow.
Concerns over a possible invasion have prompted the Taiwanese government to beef up its combat readiness and wartime preparation.
A study released by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission last year said China has boosted its arsenal of new missiles and amphibious ships – key weapons needed in any crossing of the 200km-long Taiwan Strait to the island.
What is the US role in defending Taiwan?
Washington’s longstanding policy has been to provide political and military support for Taiwan, while not explicitly promising to defend it from a Chinese attack.
In May 2022, US President Joe Biden’s warning the US would defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression made headlines around the world – and put growing tensions between the small democratic island and its neighbouring autocratic superpower back under the spotlight
Though the US has no bases on Taiwan, American officials confirmed last year that special forces have been training with the Taiwan military for more than a year, including maritime operations with Marine commandos in recent weeks.
US military support for Taiwan is “based on an assessment of Taiwan’s defence needs and the threat posed by” China, Pentagon spokesman John Supple said.
What is the position of Australia?
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese urged stability and de-escalation following the visit by Pelosi to Taiwan.
Albanese was speaking on Wednesday when he was launching a major defence review into Australia’s armed forces.
“We live in an era where there’s strategic competition and increased tension in our region,” Albanese said.
“And where China has taken a more aggressive posture 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’ll continue to work with partners to promote peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
Defence Minister Richard Marles said later the federal government was monitoring the situation after Pelosi’s visit.
Many security experts believe that Washington would expect some degree of military support from Canberra if China attacked Taiwan.
Last year, former defence minister Peter Dutton told The Australian newspaper that if the US deployed military forces to defend Taiwan, it would be “inconceivable” that Australia would not follow.
And former Prime Minister Tony Abbott hit out at China’s regime in a provocative speech delivered in Taiwan last October.
He branded President Xi Jinping as “the new red emperor” as he spoke at a national security forum attended by Taiwan’s president and foreign minister.
Over decades, Australian governments have mirrored US policy by not announcing publicly whether they would come to Taiwan’s aid if the island was attacked by China.
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