Birth of Taiwan
The roots of the China-Taiwan dispute lie in the island’s lengthy history, from the Chinese Civil War to the modern day.
Taiwan is an island in the western Pacific Ocean, roughly 100 miles off the coast of mainland China. While it has an extensive early history — including its times as a colony of various foreign powers such as the Netherlands and Japan — its 20th-century history is most relevant when discussing the modern geopolitical landscape.
After losing World War II in 1945, Japan turned control of Taiwan over to Nationalist China. However, China quickly devolved into civil war, and in 1949, Communist forces under Mao Zedong ousted the Nationalist government and formed the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Most of the remaining Nationalists fled to Taiwan, including their leader Chiang Kai-shek, and established the Republic of China (ROC) in Taipei — the capital city of Taiwan.
Over the next few years, Taiwan claimed to be the rightful government of both mainland China and the island — though they dropped their claims over the mainland in the early 1990s. Although its initial government was more democratic in form than in practice, the Taiwanese government made great strides toward becoming a truly republican system over its decades in exile. Today, it operates as a healthy multi-party democracy.
While many nations initially continued to recognize the ROC as the rightful government of China, that changed as the PRC’s dominance over the mainland solidified. Beijing — the seat of the PRC’s government — replaced Taipei in the United Nations in 1971, and the United States established formal diplomatic ties with the PRC in 1979. Although it ended official relations with the ROC, the U.S. has continued its involvement with the Taiwanese since that time, mainly under the guise of the Taiwan Relations Act.
The PRC maintains a “One China” policy, requiring nations to “recognize the government of the PRC as the sole legitimate government representing the whole of China” — a position few countries dispute. However, Taiwan has operated as a relatively autonomous state for decades, and there has never been an agreement on if or how these entities will reunite.