Why does China want to invade Taiwan? The conflict explained

This simple guide answers the question why does China want to invade Taiwan and many more.

Taiwanese flag against a clear blue sky
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Tensions have escalated dramatically between China and Taiwan, with a Chinese invasion of the island increasingly looking like a possibility.

After the arrival of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan sparked outrage in the Chinese government, many have been asking themselves: why does China want to invade Taiwan? Much like Russia's invasion of Ukraine (opens in new tab), the source of tension is about one country's power over another. And while Taiwan is not a member of NATO (opens in new tab), the support it has received from the US and the G7 (opens in new tab) has angered officials in China.

From why does China want to invade Taiwan to how big is the island, we've put together this simple guide to answer all your questions about the ongoing tensions.

Why does China want to invade Taiwan?

The Chinese government sees Taiwan as a breakaway province that will eventually become part of its country. But the people of Taiwan consider the self-ruled nation to be separate from China, whether it is granted independence or not.

Tensions have been heightened further recently, after the US indicated it would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion and, more recently, after House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island. To add fuel to the fire, research conducted by the National Chengchi University shows that that the proportion of people in Taiwan who identify as Chinese, or both Chinese and Taiwanese, has fallen considerably since the 1990s, and that most people consider themselves as Taiwanese.

Since the 80s, relations between China and Taiwan had seemed improved, with the war between the two declared officially over in 1991. However, when China proposed 'one country, two systems' - which would allow Taiwan significant autonomy if it agreed to come under Beijing's control - tensions rose again after Taiwan rejected the offer, leading China to insist that the government in Taiwan was 'illegitimate'.

Since then, Taiwan has elected leaders openly backing independence from China, and the current president, Tsai Ing-wen, leads the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

When did Taiwan gain independence?

The history between Taiwan and China is complex, but the election of Chen Shui-bian as the island's president in 2000 marked the first transfer of power from the Republic of China to Taiwan. 

Taiwan was first governed by China under the Qing dynasty from 1683 to 1895, after which point the Japanese took over power of the island. However, following World War Two, Japan surrendered and handed control of Taiwan back to China, which was, at the time, the Republic of China (ROC).

Civil war broke out in China not long after, and the ROC troops were defeated by the Communist army. Mainland China then became the People's Republic of China (PRC), while the remnants of the ROC government fled to Taiwan. 

Local people in Taiwan formed a growing democracy movement, which led to the election in 2000.

 Where is Taiwan and how big is Taiwan compared to the UK? 

Taiwan is an island in the Pacific Ocean, roughly 1,300 miles south east of China. It has a population of 23.1 million and an area of 13,826 square miles.

For comparison, the UK has an area of 93,628 square miles, making it roughly seven times bigger than Taiwan.

The Taiwan Strait separates the island from continental Asia. At its narrowest point it is just 130km wide and is a major international shipping channel.

On Thursday 4 August 2022, Taiwan confirmed there had been multiple Chinese missile launches into the waters of the Taiwan Strait during military drills.

What did Taiwan used to be called?

Portuguese sailors passing by the island in the 16th century named the island 'Formosa' - meaning 'beautiful island' - and the name was adopted by residents many years later.

When China gave up the island to Japan in 1895, many Chinese people in Taiwan decided to resist the transfer of power and declared independence, establishing what they called the free and democratic Republic of Formosa.

However, the Republic of Formosa was short-lived, as after five months the Japanese regained control of the island.

Does the UK recognise Taiwan?

The UK does not recognise Taiwan as a state and has no diplomatic relations with the island.

In 1950, the UK broke of its recognition of the ROC, and became the first Western power to recognise the People's Republic of China (PRC). The UK went on to close down its consulate in Taiwan in 1972 and signed an agreement that "acknowledged the position of the government of the PRC that Taiwan was a province of China and recognised the PRC Government as the sole legal government of China."

In July 2020, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon set out the UK government's policy on Taiwan, saying "The United Kingdom’s long-standing policy on Taiwan has not changed. We have no diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but a strong unofficial relationship based on dynamic commercial, educational and cultural ties. 

"We regularly lobby in favour of Taiwan’s participation in international organisations where statehood is not a prerequisite, and we make clear our concerns about any activity that risks destabilising the cross-strait status quo," he continued. "We have no plans to recognise Taiwan as a state."

Which countries recognise Taiwan?

  • Belize
  • Guatemala
  • Haiti
  • Honduras 
  • Paraguay
  • Saint Kitts and Nevis
  • Saint Lucia
  • Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  • The Marshall Islands
  • Nauru
  • Palau
  • Tuvalu
  • Eswatini
  • Vatican City

Though Taiwan only has full diplomatic relations with these fourteen states - none of which are major powers - the nation has received support from the G7.

In a statement (opens in new tab) released on August 3, the foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America said: "We are concerned by recent and announced threatening actions by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), particularly live-fire exercises and economic coercion, which risk unnecessary escalation. There is no justification to use a visit as pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait."

They added: "We call on the PRC not to unilaterally change the status quo by force in the region, and to resolve cross-Strait differences by peaceful means."

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Is Taiwan in NATO?

Taiwan is not a member of NATO, and nor is China. This means that as a non- member, there is no guarantee of support and aid from NATO members if China were to invade Taiwan.

NATO usually provides support, security and a united front when one of its member countries is threatened, but countries hoping for NATO membership must meet certain political, economic and military goals before they can join.

However, Joe Biden has previously said that the US would defend Taiwan in the even of a Chinese invasion. Speaking at a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Biden said "That’s the commitment we made. We agree with the ‘One China’ policy. We signed on to it. All the attendant agreements [were] made from there. But the idea that [Taiwan] can be taken by force, it’s just not appropriate.”

Why is Taiwan not part of the UN?

Taiwan is currently unable to apply to the United Nations because of its complex relationship with China.

In 1971, the Republic of China - of which Taiwan was part of - was expelled from the United Nations by a vote of the General Assembly and replaced by the People’s Republic of China, because it had taken over the mainland of China in 1949.

The PRC has so far been able to block Taiwan's participation in the UN, and the UN does not recognise Taiwan as an independent country.

Why is Taiwan important to the world?

Taiwan's economy is hugely important to the wider world. A large portion of electronic equipment - such as phones, laptops, watches and games consoles - is powered by computer chips that come from Taiwan.

The BBC (opens in new tab) reports that, in 2021, 65% of the global production of computer chips was in Taiwan, and that one Taiwanese company, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) has over half of the world's market.

If China successfully invades Taiwan, they could control one of the world's most important industries.

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Ellie Hutchings
Ellie Hutchings

Ellie joined Goodto as a Junior Features Writer in 2022 after finishing her Master’s in Magazine Journalism at Nottingham Trent University. Previously, she completed successful work experience placements with BBC Good Food, The Big Issue and the Nottingham Post, and freelanced as an arts and entertainment writer alongside her studies. In 2021, Ellie graduated from Cardiff University with a first-class degree in Journalism.