China and Taiwan: A Torrid Backstory

Tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan have been on the rise. Here’s what lies behind them.

Monday, April 17th, 2023 New York Times

This transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors. Please review the episode audio before quoting from this transcript and email with any questions.

Sabrina Tavernise: From “The New York Times,” I’m Sabrina Tavernise. And this is “The Daily.” [MUSIC PLAYING]

The posturing between the US and China has been intensifying in recent weeks, especially when it comes to Taiwan. Today, my colleague, Edward Wong, on why China is so fixated on Taiwan and how the US got in the middle of it.

It’s Monday, April 17.

So, Ed, Taiwan has been back in the news again for the past few weeks. Tell us why.

Edward Wong: Well, Sabrina, we saw tensions spike this month over Taiwan. Earlier this month, the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, stopped in Los Angeles on her way back to Taiwan from Central America. Archived Recording (Tsai Ing-Wen)

I want to thank Speaker McCarthy for his warm hospitality.

Edward Wong: She went to the Reagan Library in Southern California and met with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.Archived Recording (Kevin Mccarthy)

The friendship between the people of Taiwan and America is a matter of profound importance to the free world.

Edward Wong: This infuriated the People’s Republic of China.Archived Recording

Today, China is condemning House Speaker Kevin McCarthy for hosting the president of Taiwan at the Reagan Library.

Edward Wong: They don’t want to see any form of diplomacy, even informal diplomacy, taking place between Taiwanese officials and US officials. And they announced the start of military exercises around Taiwan.Archived Recording

On the Taiwan Strait, China’s Shandong aircraft carrier launched 80 fighter jet missions and 40 helicopter flights.

Edward Wong: This is the latest in the kind of surge in tensions that happens periodically and that has taken place in recent years.Archived Recording

The drills came with an ominous warning, China’s military is ready to fight.

Sabrina Tavernis: Right. It feels like we’re in this cycle where Taiwan does something pretty minor and China reacts. And this brings up a question a lot of us here at “The Daily” have had, which is why is China so fixated on Taiwan?

Edward Wong: Well, this is a conflict that dates back a century. And it permeates Chinese national and foreign policy and the question of Chinese nationalism. And there are a lot of ways that you could tell the story. But there’s a handful of moments that really define it. And I would start with what many people see as the root of the modern fixation. And that arose in the late 1940s.Archived Recording

Once again, crisis comes to China, whose teeming millions now ask a single question, what does the future hold?

Edward Wong: So at that time, there was a civil war raging in China between the Nationalist Party, also known as the Guomindang, and the communists.Archived Recording

In the spring of 1947, the communists exploded in a series of quick offensives, which left the nationalist garrisons in Manchuria dazed and confused.

Edward Wong; The Nationalists have been ruling China for many years under an authoritarian system. And their leader is Chiang Kai-shek. Now many Chinese saw this party as corrupt and as serving only the interests of the elite. And they were eager to have a new type of government. And at that time, Mao Zedong was leading the communists and the Communist Army in a fight against the Nationalists.Archived Recording

Now the Communist leader, Mao Tse-tung, is winning one victory after another.

Edward Wong: And many people in the countryside, as well as some students, intellectuals, and workers in the cities, were joining his cause and willing to fight against the nationalists.Archived Recording

Red morale was high. And above all, they knew what they were fighting for.Edward Wong

The Civil War raged on for years. And eventually, the Communist army got the upper hand.Archived Recording

Mao Tse-tung declared the Chinese People’s Revolutionary War has now reached a turning point.Edward Wong

And in October of 1949, Mao Zedong proclaims the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing.Archived Recording

The Reds have changed the face of China and brought the world’s largest country within the Communist empire.

Edward Wong: And so the Nationalists had to flee. And they left mainland China and went to the island of Taiwan off the Southeast coast of China.Archived Recording

General Chiang Kai-shek returns to power as president of Nationalist China. He takes office in exile at Formosa, island fortress 90 miles from the Chinese mainland.

Edward Wong: And then once they settled down on the island in 1949, they went about refashioning their government and their society on the island. And they claimed that they were still the legitimate government of China.Archived Recording

After their disastrous defeat at the hands of the communists, the Nationalists have started anew from scratch.


Sabrina Tavernise: And what did that look like, Ed?

Edward Wong: So the government that the nationalists set up on Taiwan looked very much like the government that they have been running on mainland China. For example, on Taiwan, they had officials, who they said were leaders of provinces in China. They had different offices running what they said were places like Mongolia and Tibet in China.

Sabrina Tavernise: Whoa.

Edward Wong: And they also had some of the most sacred symbols of the old China. They have brought treasures from the Forbidden City accumulated by previous dynasties and brought them to Taiwan. So both in governance and in culture, they were saying that they were essentially China.Sabrina Tavernise

Like Taiwan in its own telling was a fully fledged version of China in exile right down to the most sacred objects of Chinese history.Edward Wong

That’s right, Sabrina. And this is very important. They said their aspiration would be to one day depose the communists and reestablish control over China.

Sabrina Tavernise: So you can see why communist China would be annoyed by this. A renegade China that effectively lost the Civil War sets up shop right next door and claims that it is the real China.

Edward Wong: Well, Sabrina, they’re more than just annoyed. Mao sees this as an important unfinished part of the Civil War. And he has intentions to conquer Taiwan and take it back into China.

Sabrina Tavernise: So effectively, you have two different parties saying that they are the real China. And each side says it wants to take the other side.

Edward Wong: That’s right.

Sabrina Tavernise: And how does the world handle this weird situation of two Chinas?

Edward Wong: Well, some nations decide to recognize the People’s Republic of China. But the United States actually supports Taiwan as the legitimate government of China.

Sabrina Tavernise: And why does the US do that?

Edward Wong: Well, at this point, the Americans were engaged in the Cold War. They’re trying everything they could to hold back the Soviet Union and contain the spread of communism in the world. So they didn’t want to recognize the Chinese communists as the legitimate government. And so they decide that Taiwan, even though it’s an authoritarian government, should be the legitimate ruler of China. And this US support of Taiwan continued for many years. But then in the 1960s, something started to change.


Remember, the Cold War was very complicated. And in Southeast Asia, the Americans were fighting the war in Vietnam against the Vietnamese communists, who were backed by the Soviet Union and by China. And by 1971, the war was going poorly for the United States. And President Nixon and his aides thought that if they could improve diplomatic ties with China, then maybe they could get the Chinese communists to withdraw their support from the North Vietnamese and the Soviets. And that would hasten the end of the war in Vietnam.

Sabrina Tavernise: So basically, swallow their dislike for one communist regime in an effort to contain the other and on the chance that it might end this disastrous war they were engaged with.

Edward Wong: That’s exactly right. And in addition to the urgent problem of the Vietnam War, Nixon and his aides were also beginning to recognize the potential power of China. And they think that the country could be an important partner if they take the right diplomatic steps.

Sabrina Tavernise: So what does Nixon do?

Edward Wong: In 1971, Nixon sent his aide, Henry Kissinger, on a secret trip to China to start having talks with Chinese officials on reopening diplomatic ties. Shortly after Kissinger’s secret visit, Nixon announces that he himself will make a trip to Beijing.Archived Recording (Richard Nixon)

There can be no stable and enduring peace without the participation of the People’s Republic of China and its 750 million people.

Edward Wong: And in 1972, he travels there.

[CHATTER]Archived Recording

East meets West as a handshake bridges 16,000 miles and 22 years of hostility.

Edward Wong: He goes to the Great Wall.Archived Recording

The President said, one would have to conclude that this is, in fact, a Great Wall built by great people.

Edward Wong: And he speaks with Mao Zedong.Archived Recording

At the summit, face-to-face, two leaders who direct the destiny of one out of three persons on the Earth

Edward Wong: It’s a huge earthshaking event in diplomatic relations around the world.

Sabrina Tavernise: So Nixon here is switching sides, effectively reversing decades of American foreign policy.

Edward Wong: Yes. And this begins a new chapter in US-China relations and in world diplomacy. And the actions of the US government that began under Nixon culminate in 1979 —Archived Recording (Jimmy Carter)

The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China have agreed to recognize each other and to establish diplomatic relations as of January the 1, 1979.

Edward Wong— when President Carter formally establishes diplomatic recognition of the Communist-run government in Beijing as the legitimate government of China.Archived Recording (Jimmy Carter)

The government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.

Edward Wong: And he officially cuts off diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Sabrina Tavernise: So at this point, Communist China gets what it wants?Edward Wong

Well, not exactly, Sabrina. President Carter did give China a big part of what it wanted, which was diplomatic recognition of its government. But Carter also put the question of Taiwan aside. Beijing wanted the US to acknowledge that Taiwan was ruled by China. But what Carter did was a very complicated evasive maneuver.


He said in his own words that the US acknowledges China’s position that there is one China and that Taiwan’s part of it. But that doesn’t mean that the US endorsed that position. Carter wasn’t explicitly supporting Beijing’s idea that it was the ruler of Taiwan now. It just said it knew how Beijing felt about the situation. And that’s the foundation of what the US calls its One China Policy.

Sabrina Tavernise: So this is a real act of political jujitsu on the part of the United States? Carter saying to Beijing, we recognize that you think Taiwan is part of China. We hear you. But we’re not saying that we agree.

Edward Wong: That’s exactly right. So Carter left the US government’s position on Taiwan’s status intentionally vague. And that would have far-reaching consequences in the coming decades.


Sabrina Tavernise: We’ll be right back.

So, Ed, you said that the US left its position toward Taiwan ambiguous intentionally. How does that play out?

Edward Wong: So when Carter makes this announcement, formally establishing diplomatic ties with China, not everyone in the US is enthusiastic about it. And some lawmakers in Congress are not happy with the recognition of Beijing and this loss for Taiwan. They want to protect Taiwan in case the Chinese Communist Party ever tried to make a move against it.

So in 1979, the same year that the Carter administration formally establishes diplomatic ties with China, Congress passes this legislation called the Taiwan Relations Act. It essentially commits the US to protecting Taiwan in certain ways without saying explicitly that its military would come to Taiwan’s defense. This act says that the US must give weapons of a defensive nature to Taiwan. It says that it must maintain a capacity to defend Taiwan if there’s coercion. And it says that it will work to make sure that any friction or tensions over Taiwan are resolved peacefully.

Sabrina Tavernise: Doesn’t that seem to run counter to the U.S diplomatic efforts toward China? Because China and the US have just spent the entire decade of the 1970s hammering out diplomatic relations? And now, if China takes any military action against Taiwan, this new condition basically says that the US might take action to defend Taiwan.

Edward Wong: That’s right. And it creates this deep mistrust between the rulers in Beijing on the one hand and the U.S and Taiwan on the other hand. And in the coming decades, something happens within Taiwan that makes China even more upset. So remember, the original nationalist leaders in Taiwan had the singular focus on retaking China.

And then, you had these newer generations of people in Taiwan who are born on the island, who had never been to China and who had no interest in claiming ownership of China. They were really more interested in their identity as Taiwanese people and in governing themselves in Taiwan. And in the 1990s, there was this groundswell of support throughout the island for the leaders to install a new political system. People wanted a democracy. And they wanted multiple parties and general elections.

Sabrina Tavernise: So up until this point, Taiwan has basically seen its future as connected to China. But now Taiwan, in a way, is striking out on its own, which is probably very threatening to China?

Edward Wong: Right. And of course, China is watching this very carefully. And this push for democracy culminates in the first Democratic presidential election in 1996.Archived Recording

For people in Taiwan, this is their proudest moment.

Edward Wong: The Taiwanese elected their first native-born president, Lee Teng-hui.Archived Recording

President Lee swept to victory with almost 54 percent of the vote.

Communist China is trembling because of our democracy, Lee Teng-hui tells the crowd. He calls China’s aging leaders lockheads.Edward Wong

And his decisive victory and leadership style sent a message to Beijing. He and the Taiwanese people were saying that while Taiwan wasn’t going to openly claim to be an independent country, it would push the boundaries and edge away from this idea of one China.

Sabrina Tavernise: So how does China react?Edward Wong

Well, of course, the Communist leaders are anxious.Archived Recording

On the Chinese mainland, the Communist leadership is not just fuming over the Democratic frenzy on Taiwan. They’ve literally gone ballistic.

Edward Wong: Their biggest action came in the months before and then around the election when China took a very aggressive step and shot missiles into the waters around Taiwan.Archived Recording

China’s military exercises served notice to Taiwan that independence is not an option.

Edward Wong: And then, the US sees this. And it responds by sending warships to the area around Taiwan to tell Beijing to back off.Archived Recording

Our purpose in being here is to demonstrate the presence and commitment of the United States to peace and stability in the region.

With two U.S Naval battlegroups now in the South China Sea, the war of nerves intensifies.

Sabrina Tavernise: So this is that US policy of look but don’t touch.

Edward Wong: Right. And some people say that this moment was the first big test in this three-way dynamic that the US has established with its policies on Taiwan. And this is the type of action/reaction involving military forces that becomes a defining pattern in relations in the coming years.

Sabrina Tavernise: Right. The pattern is that China has this unfinished business with Taiwan. And it’s frustrated by the role of the United States. And each country is responding to the other’s moves with Taiwan in the middle.

Edward Wong: That’s right. And this sense of impending conflict has gotten a lot higher in recent years, especially because we’ve seen a more aggressive leader emerge in China. Xi Jinping, the current leader of China, has made some very bold statements on Taiwan. After he took power in 2012, he said that the problem of Taiwan cannot be passed on from generation to generation. And for some people, that suggests that Xi might make some bold and decisive move on Taiwan in the near future to resolve that issue. And then in the US, you also had this transition from President Obama to President Trump, who was a lot more confrontational with China.

Sabrina Tavernise: Right. Trump campaigned on how he was going to be tough on China.

Edward Wong: That’s exactly right. So for example, after Donald Trump won the election 2016, officials who worked under President Trump took a much more assertive position on China. And they really framed US-China relations as an intense competition and pushing out any room for cooperation between the two nations. By the end of the Trump administration, they were trying to figure out ways to strengthen Taiwan and the government there as a bulwark against China.

Sabrina Tavernise: In other words, China and the United States are both more aggressive in this moment.

Edward Wong: That’s exactly right. And we’ve seen the Biden administration continue to take assertive actions around the Taiwan Strait. Biden officials have continued sending warships through the Strait as a signal to Beijing. And President Biden himself has said four times now that he will have the US military defend Taiwan if China were to try and take military action against the island.

Sabrina Tavernise: So at this point in the story, it almost seems like the US is just as fixated on Taiwan as China is. Why?

Edward Wong: Well, I think there’s several reasons for that, Sabrina. Some US national security officials think Taiwan is an important strategic point to contain China. So for example, they want to make sure that the Chinese military cannot extend its reach beyond Taiwan and into other island chains in the far Pacific. And they think that as long as Taiwan remains autonomous and has robust military forces, it’ll be difficult for China to do that.

Sabrina Tavernise: So an important check on China’s military power.

Edward Wong: Exactly. And US officials also have begun to realize the importance of Taiwan in the global economy. At this point, Taiwan has the world’s most advanced semiconductor industry. And as you know, these chips that their companies make are used in everything from appliances in our household to the most advanced military systems that the United States and other countries deploy around the world. So the US sees the Taiwanese semiconductor industry as something that it must protect. And it views it as a sector that China cannot get its hands on.

Sabrina Tavernise: So, Ed, when we started this conversation over Taiwan, the big question was, who was the real China? But what you’ve laid out here is really much broader than that. Taiwan has come to represent much more for the U.S and China. It’s really come to symbolize this battle between the two superpowers over military power, over the economy. It really feels like it contains the fate of the future of the world in a lot of ways.

Edward Wong: Sabrina, when I talk to US officials here in Washington, they also speak about it in these very high-stakes terms. And some of them are openly speculating on whether the US and China will end up fighting a war over Taiwan in the coming years. But no one wants that war. When you look at the actions that the US and China are taking, you can tell that they want to make sure they don’t cross that line. They’ll move up to the edge. But they’re not willing to take that next step.

Sabrina Tavernise: And where does all of this leave Taiwan?

Edward Wong: Well, of course, the Taiwanese don’t want war over their island. So even today, you see Taiwan’s leaders trying to very carefully calibrate their actions. We saw that recently. When House Speaker Kevin McCarthy met with President Tsai Ing-wen in Southern California, President Tsai could have invited him to Taiwan.

But she chose to meet with him on US soil instead. I suspect that she knew that Beijing would see this as a less provocative action. And she appears to have been right. We saw how the Chinese reacted. They sent warships and airplanes around the Taiwan Strait. But that was a much less intense military action than other things they’ve done in the recent past.

Sabrina Tavernise: So Taiwan was just testing the line, gauging how far it could go without provoking the full fury of China.

Edward Wong: Yes. And I think President Tsai’s calculation is an example of the tightrope that Taiwanese leaders and citizens have walked for decades.

[MUSIC PLAYING] Sabrina Tavernise: It’s interesting because I would think that Taiwan would be in a pretty vulnerable position. But you’re talking about Taiwan as having agency.

Edward Wong: Yeah, in many ways, it’s counterintuitive, Sabrina. Many people think of Taiwan as this tiny island of 23 million people living in the shadow of China. And it’s true that Beijing has taken steps to diplomatically isolate them from much of the world. But the Taiwanese see themselves as being much more than a pawn in a geopolitical contest between superpowers.

And despite all the pressure on them, they’ve managed to build an important economy over the years. They’ve created a new government. And they put democracy into practice. And they managed to avoid armed conflict over their island through all these decades. So when I talk to Taiwanese officials and citizens these days, many of them tell me that the fate of the island is really in their hands.

[MUSIC PLAYING]Sabrina Tavernise: Ed, thank you.

Edward Wong: Thanks, Sabrina. It’s always great to talk to you. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Sabrina Tavernise: We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you should know today.[Shouting, Gunfire]

Over the weekend, Sudan descended into violence with street battles raging for control of Khartoum, the capital. Four years ago, Sudan was an inspiration to the world when its citizens toppled a widely detested ruler, Omar al-Bashir. The revolution faltered 18 months ago when the military seized power in a coup. The military was supposed to hand back power to civilian leaders this week. Instead, two generals, each commanding different factions of the armed forces, are now battling each other for control of the country. Scores of people have been killed in the fighting and hundreds injured.


Today’s episode was produced by Stella Tan, Mary Wilson, and Shannon Lin with help from Luke Vander Ploeg. It was edited by MJ Davis Lin, fact-checked by Susan Lee, contains original music by Dan Powell, Marion Lozano, and Rowan Niemisto. It was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly. Special thanks to Amy Chin.


That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Sabrina Tavernise. See you tomorrow.


Hosted by Sabrina Tavernise

Produced by Stella Tan, Shannon Lin and Mary Wilson

With Luke Vander Ploeg

Edited by MJ Davis

Original music by Dan PowellRowan Niemisto and Marion Lozano

Engineered by Chris Wood


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