Why is China so angry about Taiwan’s William Lai visiting the US?

China’s angry response to Taiwan official’s stopovers in US show relations between Beijing and Taipei are at an all-time low, but how did we get here?

China Taiwan
Chinese Air Force aircraft takes part in military drills around Taiwan, in this screen grab from a video released on August 19, 2023 by China's military [Handout: Eastern Theatre Command via Reuters]

China has launched military drills around Taiwan in what its described as a “stern warning” to so-called separatist forces on the self-governed island.

This tension between China and Taiwan on Saturday comes a day after Taiwan’s Vice President William Lai returned to Taipei after making two stopovers in the United States as part of a trip to Paraguay.

Lai’s transits through the US have angered Beijing which considers Taiwan part of its territory and Lai a “troublemaker” working in collusion with Washington to push separatism on the democratically-run island.

Here is some background on why China is so upset about Lai’s visit to the US:

Why is China so angry?

  • Taiwan is a deeply emotive issue for China’s ruling Communist Party and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
  • The People’s Republic of China has claimed Taiwan as its territory since the defeated Republic of China government fled to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war with Mao Zedong’s Communist forces.
  • China has repeatedly called on US officials to not engage with Taiwanese leaders or allow them into the country under any guise, viewing it as “collusion” between Taipei and Washington.
  • Beijing has not ruled out the use of force to take control of the democratic, self-governed island, and has been increasing military activity near the island in recent years.
  • In 2005 China passed a law giving Beijing the legal basis for military action against Taiwan if it secedes or seems about to.

Why does China dislike William Lai so much?

  • China believes Lai to be a separatist, a view borne out of his comments about being a “worker” for Taiwan’s independence.
  • While Taiwan and the US say Lai’s US transits were routine and no reason for China to take offence, Beijing argue that Lai’s trips were in support of seeking “independence” for Taiwan, and a “disguise” to “seek gains in the local election through dishonest moves”.
  • Lai is the ruling Democratic Party’s presidential candidate for the January elections and leads the polls.

What are Taiwan-US relations like?

  • In 1979, the US severed official relations with the government in Taipei and instead recognised the government in Beijing. A Taiwan-US defence treaty was terminated at the same time.
  • The post-1979 relationship between the US and Taiwan has been governed by the Taiwan Relations Act, which gives Washington a legal basis to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself but does not mandate that the US come to Taiwan’s aid if attacked.
  • While the US has long followed a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on whether it would intervene militarily to protect Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, current US President Joe Biden has shifted the dial saying he would be willing to use force to defend Taiwan.
  • The US continues to be Taiwan’s most important source of weapons, and Taiwan’s contested status is a constant source of friction between Beijing and Washington.

What does Taiwan say?

  • Taiwan’s government says that as the People’s Republic of China has never ruled the island, it has no right to claim sovereignty over it, speak for it or represent it on the world stage, and that only Taiwan’s people can decide their future.
  • Taiwan’s official name continues to be the Republic of China, though these days, the government often stylises it as the Republic of China (Taiwan).
  • Only 13 countries formally recognise Taiwan: Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu, Eswatini and the Vatican City.
  • Nine countries switched alliance to China after Tsai Ing-wen became Taiwan’s president in 2016, and Beijing has increased its efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically.
  • Taiwan’s government says it is a sovereign country, and it has a right to state-to-state ties.

How are relations between Taipei and Beijing?

  • Very bad.
  • China views Tsai as a separatist and has rebuffed her repeated calls for talks.
  • Tsai says she wants peace but her government will defend Taiwan if attacked.
  • Beijing says Tsai must accept that China and Taiwan are part of a “one China”.
  • Neither side recognises the other, and China shut off all formal dialogue mechanisms after Tsai first won office in 2016.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies