One of the most sensitive issues in U.S.-China relations is the status of Taiwan. Officially, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) considers this island off the southeastern coast of the mainland part of its territory. However, Taiwan maintains its own government and enjoys extensive economic relations with the United States.
The origins of Taiwan’s ambiguous status can be traced to the end of World War II, when a civil war between China’s two dominant political parties came to a head. The nationalist Kuomintang party, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist Party of China, led by Mao Zedong, had fought each other since the 1920s. By 1949, the Kuomintang had been forced to flee to Taiwan. However, they still claimed to be the rightful rulers of China. Meanwhile, on October 1 of that year, Mao proclaimed the Communist revolution successful, and the People’s Republic of China was born.
All this occurred at the dawn of the West’s cold war with the Soviet Union. The United States, opposed to the spread of communism, initially refused to recognize the PRC, and instead made promises to support the exiled government on Taiwan. However, by the start of the 1970s, it was apparent that the PRC was firmly in power and that the leaders on Taiwan had little influence in mainland China. Over the objections of the United States, the United Nations admitted the PRC and revoked Taiwan’s membership.
The United States now recognizes the Communist government in Beijing as the legitimate ruler of China. Yet U.S. leaders are reluctant to completely abandon ties with the government on Taiwan. Thus, ever since President Richard Nixon made the first official U.S. visit to the PRC in 1972, U.S. presidents have tried to maintain a delicate balance, helping to strengthen Taiwan economically and militarily without offending the PRC.