US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan has provoked Beijing's ire -- and brought into focus Washington's deliberately ambiguous foreign policy stance toward the democratic, self-ruled island.
Bitter history: The deep rift between Beijing and Taiwan dates back to China's civil war, which erupted in 1927 and pitted forces aligned with the Communist Party of China against the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) army. Eventually defeated by Mao Zedong's communists, KMT chief Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, which was still under his control. From there, Chiang continued to claim the entirety of China -- just as the mainland claimed Taiwan as part of its territory to be re-taken one day, by force if necessary. Taiwan's official name remains the Republic of China, while the mainland is the People's Republic of China. Since the late 1990s, Taiwan has transformed from an autocracy into a vibrant democracy and a distinct Taiwanese identity has emerged.
Strategic ambiguity: Washington cut formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, switching recognition to Beijing as the sole representative of China. But at the same time, the United States maintained a decisive role in supporting Taiwan. Under a law passed by Congress, the United States is required to sell Taiwan military supplies to ensure its self-defence against Beijing's threat. But it has maintained "strategic ambiguity" on whether it would actually intervene militarily, a policy designed both to ward off a Chinese invasion and discourage Taiwan from ever formally declaring independence. There is now growing bipartisan discussion in Washington over whether a switch to "strategic clarity" is preferable given Beijing's increasingly bellicose approach to cross-strait relations. Yet analysts broadly agree that despite all its aggressive posturing, Beijing does not want an active military conflict over Taiwan -- just yet.
'One China' policy: US policy on Taiwan has always hinged on diplomatic nuance. In what is termed the "One China policy", Washington recognises Beijing, but only acknowledges the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China. It leaves it to the two sides to work out a solution, while opposing any use of force to change the status quo. In practice, Taiwan enjoys many of the trappings of a full diplomatic relations with the United States. Only 13 nations, all in the developing world, and the Vatican still recognise Taiwan.