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Q+A - Why is China so sensitive about Taiwan?

BEIJING/TAIPEI (Reuters) - China has reacted with fury at the latest proposed sales of U.S. weapons to Taiwan, saying it would sanction U.S. companies that sell arms to the self-ruled island and suspend military exchanges.

Here are some questions and answers about why China is so sensitive about Taiwan:

WHAT IS THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND?

The island formally became a Chinese province only in 1887. But China’s faltering Qing imperial government was forced to cede it to Japan in 1895 after a brief war. Japan ran Taiwan as a colony until 1945, when it was effectively handed over to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist (KMT) government in China.

In 1949 Mao Zedong’s forces won the Chinese civil war and the KMT fled to the island, ruling it under martial law until democratising in the 1980s, while the Communists controlled China. No peace treaty has ever been signed.

WHAT IS CHINA’S OFFICIAL POSITION ON TAIWAN?

That Taiwan is, was and always has been an inseparable part of China, and that international law supports China’s claim. Citizens of China learn this from childhood, and there is no public discussion of alternate views.

China’s ruling Communist Party wants outright reunification, the sooner the better, seeing the recovery of the island as the final chapter in the civil war and end of past humiliations when China was forced to cede territory to foreigners.

While in recent years China has tempered overt threats of force to take self-ruled Taiwan, its military build-up has continued.

Taiwan’s defence ministry says that, despite easing strains between the two sides, there is no sign China has withdrawn any of the estimated 1,400 missiles it has aimed at the island.

WHAT IS TAIWAN’S OFFICIAL POSITION ON CHINA?

It depends on who is in power. The KMT long ago gave up its ambitions to “recover” China, though it has not dropped its claim to the territory of today’s mainland China from its constitution.

Taiwan’s KMT President Ma Ying-jeou says reunification can only happen once China democratises, a prospect that seems unlikely in the short term. Ma has said reunification was unlikely in the near future.

The island’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party, whose Chen Shui-bian riled China when he was president from 2000-2008, wants the island eventually to declare formal independence.

WHAT WOULD TAIWAN INDEPENDENCE MEAN?

The abandonment of the island’s official name the Republic of China, a redefinition of territory cutting out China and the constitutional establishment of Taiwan as a nation.

China has made clear it would view that as an open declaration of war.

Supporters of independence dispute China’s legal and historic claims on the island. They argue that China is alien to Taiwan politically and socially despite common ethnic roots, especially after decades of division.

Independence supporters see little reason, apart from avoiding military conflict, to give up their hard-won democracy in exchange for even indirect rule by China’s autocratic Communist Party.

WHAT IS U.S. POLICY TOWARDS TAIWAN?

Washington formally acknowledges the “one China” policy and switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. But the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by Congress the same year, obliges it to sell Taiwan weapons to defend itself.

The United States also says that the people of Taiwan must be consulted on any changes to the island’s status, whether that be reunification with China or outright independence.

WHAT ARE WASHINGTON’S BROADER STRATEGIC CONCERNS?

Taiwan is a democracy and strong unofficial ally of the United States. Along with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, it thus provides an important bulwark against China in the Asia Pacific region.

U.S. officials have voiced concerns about a lack of transparency surrounding China’s growing military spending.

During the Cold War, Washington viewed Taiwan as part of its “domino theory,” fearing that if the island fell to Mao it would help spread the reach of Communism throughout Asia.

HOW HAVE PAST CRISES PLAYED OUT?

There have been various “Formosa Straits Crises,” as they were termed during the Cold War, targeting small islands off China’s coast held by the KMT post-1949.

They involved heavy Chinese artillery bombardments, fierce aerial dog fights and naval clashes. Taiwan evacuated some of the islands, at least one having been taken by force, but to this day holds the Kinmen (also known as Quemoy) and Matsu archipelagos.

The last major crisis was in 1996, when China test fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait to protest against Washington’s granting of a visa to then-Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui.

U.S. President Bill Clinton responded by sending an aircraft carrier group through the Strait, and the crisis petered out.

Editing by Alex Richardson

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