As China embarks on its largest-ever military exercises around Taiwan following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, AFP looks back at relations between the self-governing island and Beijing, which views it as part of China.

China Taiwan
File photo: konget & LH Wong, via Wikicommons.

1949: separation

Mao Zedong’s communists take power in Beijing in October 1949 after defeating Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) nationalists in a civil war.

Mao Zedong announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. File photo: Hou Bo, via Wikicommons.

The KMT flee to the island of Taiwan and form their own government in Taipei in December, cutting off contacts with mainland China.

In 1950, Taiwan becomes an ally of the United States, which is at war with communist China in Korea. The US deploys a fleet in the Taiwan Strait to protect its ally from possible attack.

1971: Beijing gets UN, US nods

In October 1971, Beijing takes over China’s seat at the United Nations, previously held by Taipei. 

In 1979, the United States cuts formal ties with Taiwan and establishes diplomatic relations with Beijing instead. 

Mao Zedong meets Richard Nixon
Mao Zedong met then US President Richard Nixon in 1972. File photo: NARA via Flickr.

Washington goes on to develop a nuanced Taiwan policy where it “acknowledges” China’s claim to the island, which is not the same as accepting Beijing’s claim of sovereignty.

The US also maintains trade and military ties with Taipei. It opposes both Taiwanese independence and any attempt by China to forcibly take the island.

1987-2004: relations improve

In late 1987, Taiwan residents are for the first time permitted to visit mainland China, allowing families to reunite.

In 1991, Taiwan lifts emergency rule, unilaterally ending a state of war with China. The first direct talks between the two sides are held in Singapore two years later.

But in 1995, Beijing suspends talks in protest at a visit by Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui to the United States.

Lee Teng-hui
Former Taiwan leader Lee Teng-hui. File photo: Presidential Office Building, via Wikicommons.

In 1996, China tests missiles off Taiwan to deter voters in the island’s first democratic presidential election.

In 2000 elections, the KMT loses power in Taiwan for the first time. Over the next few years trade links between the two sides improve.

2005-2015: threats and talks

In March 2005, Beijing adopts a law authorising the use of force if Taiwan declares independence. In April, KMT chairman Lien Chan makes a landmark visit to Beijing for talks with Chinese leader Hu Jintao.

Hu jintao met Lien Chen
KMT chairman Lien Chan makes a landmark visit to Beijing for talks with Chinese leader Hu Jintao in 2005. File photo: GovCN.

In 2008, Taiwan and China resume high-level talks after the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou is elected president on a Beijing-friendly platform.

In 2010, they sign a sweeping Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and in 2014 hold the first government-to-government talks since separation.

2016: honeymoon over

In January 2016, Tsai Ing-wen, from the traditionally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, wins presidential elections. 

Tsai Ing-wen inauguration
Tsai Ing-wen speaking in her inauguration ceremony in May 2016. File photo: 齊勇明, via Wikicommons.

In June, China suspends all communications with Taiwan after the new government fails to acknowledge the “One China” policy.

In December 2016, US president-elect Donald Trump breaks with decades of US diplomatic policy by speaking directly, by telephone, with Tsai.

In January 2019, Xi Jinping says that the unification of China and Taiwan is “inevitable”.

2021: US-China tensions

In 2021, Chinese military jets make hundreds of incursions into Taiwan’s defence zone.

China Shenyang J-16 fighter jet
China’s Shenyang J-16 fighter jet. Photo:, via Wikicommons.

In October, US President Joe Biden says the United States will defend Taiwan if China attacks it, in comments later partly walked back by the White House.

Tsai confirms that a small number of US troops are present in Taiwan to help train its forces.

2022: Pelosi visit sparks fury

On August 2, after days of speculation and stern warnings from Beijing of unspecified “consequences”, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lands in Taiwan during a tour of Asia.

Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen Nancy Pelosi
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (right) meets with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (left) on August 3, 2022. Photo: Wang Yu Ching/Taiwan’s Office of the President.

The highest-profile elected US official to visit the island in 25 years says her visit demonstrates her country’s “unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant democracy”.

A furious China vows “punishment” and launches its largest-ever military exercises in the area, encircling Taiwan on August 4. 

The exercises include the deployment of fighter jets and warships, and the firing of ballistic missiles.

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