China continues its naval exercises in and around Taiwan this week in yet another round of saber-rattling following the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the island.
The US has condemned the exercises as an “irresponsible” and “provocative” action designed to undermine peace in the region – following President Xi’s repeated vows to “reunite” Taiwan.
In this video, Mail Online goes through the tensions that led to this confrontation.
Mainland China is separated from Taiwan by the narrow Taiwan Strait, with the middle of the waterway acting as the unofficial boundary between the two
China claims authority over Taiwan, as well as a vast area of the nearby ocean known as the South China Sea, where it has built military bases on previously uninhabited islands
What and where is Taiwan?
Taiwan is a collection of islands located about 80 miles off the coast of southern China, where the East China Sea merges into the South China Sea.
It is home to 23 million people and was ruled several times by Dutch colonizers, the Chinese Qing emperors and Imperial Japan.
Taiwan is a series of islands about 80 miles off the coast of mainland China where the East China Sea meets the South China Sea
Why are there tensions around the islands?
The fighting dates back more than 100 years, when the mainland was known as the Republic of China after its last dynasty – the Qing – was abolished in 1911.
The new nation was at war with itself, divided between various warring political factions, surviving royalists and warlords.
In an effort to reunite the country, the Chinese Nationalist Party – fighting on behalf of the Republic – formed an alliance with the Chinese Communist Party and in 1927 launched an attack that started the Chinese Civil War.
Their campaign had some success, but the alliance did not last and the two soon fought among themselves.
Communist forces fight in the Battle of Siping against the Nationalists, in which the Nationalists suffered huge losses
In 1931, the Nationalists controlled most of China, but the war with the Communists had to be suspended when Japan invaded.
That invasion ended when Japan was defeated in World War II. After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the Nationalists and Communists resumed fighting.
But this time, it was the Communists – backed by Soviet Russia – who emerged dominantly, and in 1949 the Republic of China was forced to withdraw from the mainland to Taiwan, which was already under its control.
Mao Zedong, leader of the communists, then founded the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.
Separated by the Taiwan Strait, the old enemies remain at an impasse to this day.
Taiwan sees itself as an independent country, while China sees it as a breakaway province that needs to be ‘reunited’ – although in fact the communists never ruled there.
How did the US get involved?
America refused to recognize the People’s Republic for decades after the war ended and instead maintained relations only with Taiwan.
During two crises in the 1950s, communist forces attacked some of Taiwan’s remote islands, with the US sending ships to aid their ally.
But that all changed after Mao’s death in 1976, when reformer Deng Xiaoping took over and vowed to open China to the world.
As China modernized under Deng, President Jimmy Carter agreed to normalize relations with Beijing, and in 1979 the two countries signed a deal.
US President Jimmy Carter and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping sign documents establishing formal diplomatic relations in 1979
As part of that deal, the Carter administration agreed to recognize the “one China” principle – that there is only one China, and Taiwan is part of that.
But there was a backlash from Congress, which passed a law requiring America to supply weapons to the island for self-defense.
During another crisis in 1995, China attempted to intimidate Taiwan with a series of missile tests, triggering a massive display of military might by the US.
Beijing eventually withdrew.
How did the current crisis start?
In 2019, Xi Jinping – the current president of China – delivered a speech vowing to “reunite” Taiwan with the mainland, calling it the “great trend of history.”
Xi opened the door to peaceful reunification, but added: “We promise not to give up the use of force and maintain the ability to take all necessary measures.”
His comments came amid a massive update from the Chinese military, and after China built bases on islands in the South China Sea and began threatening American ships sailing near them.
In the years since his speech, Beijing has threatened Taiwan by flying military fighter jets across the Strait in increasing numbers.
America, meanwhile, has forged new alliances in the region with countries such as India, Australia and Japan to counterbalance Beijing’s power.
What does Pelosi’s visit have to do with it?
Pelosi became the most senior U.S. official since Newt Gingrich in 1997 to visit the island when she landed on August 3, 2022.
Her visit was part of a tour of US allies in the region designed to show US support in the face of increased aggression from Beijing.
Pelosi has been a critic of China’s human rights record for decades, and the trip has been seen as a confirmation of that legacy as she nears the end of her career.
Nancy Pelosi meets with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei on Aug. 3, in a move that sparks anger in Beijing
But the visit came at a bad time for Mr Xi, who is preparing to be named president for a historic third term in the fall and sees the “reunification” of Taiwan as his destiny.
He has responded with unprecedented force, swearing that “whoever plays with fire will die from it.”
Xi initially ordered six days of military exercises around Taiwan, which will effectively blockade the island and penetrate its territorial waters.
Now the exercises are going on indefinitely and Beijing says it will end “when the time is right.”
Can China and the US actually go to war?
Officially, US policy on Taiwan is “strategic ambiguity,” meaning Washington refuses to say what it would do if China attacked.
But President Biden has said several times that the US would come to the aid of Taiwan in a war — though the White House insists each time he is mistaken.
Chinese anti-aircraft batteries participate in military exercises to intimidate Taiwan
Every time Taiwan has been threatened or attacked in the past, America has endangered ships and troops.
Should fighting break out again, it is entirely possible that the US would send troops to help its ally by putting them in the firing line of the Chinese.
By accident or design, it’s easy to see how the two superpowers could collide – although that result is far from guaranteed.
What would happen if Taiwan were attacked?
Any war between Taiwan and China — be it the US or not — would surely be bloody.
Taiwan has a modern military equipped with state-of-the-art American weapons and has been preparing for an attack from the mainland for decades.
Though small compared to China, Taiwan’s main island is still larger than Belgium and surrounded by dozens of smaller islands.
It wouldn’t be easy to catch, and the resistance will likely be fierce.
A Chinese Xian H-6 bomber is pictured in the sky over the Taiwan Strait amid massive military exercises that will effectively blockade the island
Taiwan also happens to be one of the most populous places on Earth. Since there is nowhere to run to, there will likely be many civilian casualties.
The knock-on effects would also be serious. Tit-for-tat sanctions between the US and China – the world’s two largest economies – threaten a global recession.
Taiwan is also close to important shipping channels that are likely to be disrupted, and China could curb its own exports to the West, causing inflation.
The island itself is also the world’s largest manufacturer of semiconductors used to make computer chips, and any war would shut down production.
That, in turn, would lead to shortages of everything from computers to smartphones and cars, while also threatening critical infrastructure like satellites.