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Political Science China-Taiwan Relations
Steven Goldstein


The complex relationship between the Republic of China (ROC) on the island of Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland is rooted in the Chinese civil war of 1946–1949, which ended when the defeated ROC government fled to Taiwan, where it remains. Initially the conflict concerned which side was the legitimate government of China. However, by the end of the 20th century Taiwan’s insistence on maintaining its sovereign status conflicted with the mainland’s insistence that the island was an inseparable part of China. Despite the steady growth of economic and cultural relations in the early 21st century, this central political dispute remains. Given the growing military power of the mainland as well as its refusal to abjure force to achieve its objectives, the dispute constitutes a potential flashpoint for armed conflict. However, there are other actors in this long-running drama. Since the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, the United States has supported the ROC. Official relations and a mutual defense treaty with the ROC were terminated after Washington established relations with the PRC in 1979. However, the Taiwan Relations Act passed in the same year provides the basis for a robust relationship with the island, arms sales, and the possibility of American intervention to resist coercive actions by the PRC. Finally, the people of Taiwan have played an important role. For most of the first half of the 20th century the ethnic Chinese population on Taiwan was not a part of the historic changes occurring on the mainland. They were a colonial people ruled by the Japanese, who sought—half-heartedly, to be sure—to assimilate them. The Chinese population was forced to take Japanese names and served in the Japanese army. They initially greeted the mainland forces that occupied the island after the Japanese surrender; but soon the distrust of what seemed to be a collaborationist population by the newly arrived Chinese mainlanders and the disgust of the local population with the corrupt, dictatorial control of the ruling Kuomintang (Nationalist Party or KMT) erupted in violence that was followed by institutionalized authoritarian rule by the Party and “White Terror” aimed at the native population. In the decades that followed, a movement and later a party (the Democratic Progressive Party or DPP) made up largely of native Taiwanese pressed for democratization as well as for the affirmation of an identity apart from the mainland and, eventually, independence. As democratization proceeded, their demands increasingly became an important consideration shaping the management of cross-strait relations.

General Overviews

There are very few books that provide a comprehensive view of the history of relations between Taiwan and the mainland. Most focus on more contemporary relations. However, Rubinstein 2007 provides reliable and extensive coverage by prominent scholars from a historical perspective. Bush 2005 provides a summary of the background to the relationship and has a strong policy orientation from the perspective of the United States, while Roy 2003 presents a somewhat standard, if dry, overview of Taiwan history and relations with the mainland. Rigger 2011 is a more informal and personal discussion of the island and its relationship with the mainland. Naturally, each side holds to its own version of history. For the mainland side, the most accessible statement Taiwan Affairs Office 2000. Historical background to the mainland view can be found in the documents published in Chiu 1973, while Clough 1999 traces the beginnings of the thawing of cross-strait relations at the end of the 20th century. Although the two major parties have somewhat different positions on the overall issue of relations with the mainland, a 1994 white paper, “Relations across the Taiwan Straits” (Republic of China, Mainland Affairs Council, 1994), outlines much of the historical perspective from Taiwan’s point of view. Su 2009 is a useful view from a KMT scholar who has been deeply involved in cross-strait relations. However, neither side’s positions have been static, and so it is important to consult Reference Resources for recent developments.

Reference Resources

Recent developments in cross-strait relations can be followed in several ways. The official bodies on each side of the strait have websites that provide a wide range of information on activities. In addition, both the mainland and Taiwan have official news agencies and newspapers that provide reporting from each side, while the two major political parties in Taiwan regularly post their own perspectives on cross-strait policy and events. Finally, there are newsletters that regularly focus on cross-strait relations, as well as think tanks in the United States that often publish perspectives on these relations.

Government Agencies

Government offices in Taiwan and China concerned with cross-strait relations maintain websites that can be used to track the progress of cross-strait relations and find fundamental documents. In Beijing the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council is charged with overall supervision of cross-strait relations while the Mainland Affairs Council plays that role in Taiwan.

Wire Services and Newspapers

The sites of the official news agencies on each side of the strait are extremely useful: The Central News Agency in Taiwan and the New China News Agency (Xinhua) in the PRC. For the view from Taiwan, there are English-language newspapers that often reflect the views of competing parties. A listing of these newspapers can be found at ABYZ News Links.

Taiwan Political Parties

Websites maintained by each of the major parties are a good source of their views on cross-strait relations: the KMT Official Website and that of the Democratic Progressive Party Taiwan.


The mainland maintains a website China-Taiwan that compiles news and features regarding Taiwan in English (less complete than the Chinese version), while a Taiwan scholar does similarly for mainland and cross-strait issues on Taiwan Security Research. The China Leadership Monitor published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, includes an extensive and richly documented regular discussion of cross-strait relations by Alan Romberg, a leading American scholar on the subject.

American Think Tanks

Major American think tanks cover the issue of cross strait relations from various standpoints. Among those with the most consistent coverage are the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Heritage Foundation, National Bureau of Asian Research, Project 2049 Institute, and Rand Corporation.

Academic Journals

There are several journals that regularly publish articles on cross-strait relations, one of which, Issues and Studies, is published in Taiwan. Asian Survey; Foreign Affairs; Foreign Policy; Journal of Contemporary China and Orbis are American journals. Pacific Affairs is Canadian; China Journal, Australian; and China Quarterly, English.

Cross-Strait Politics in Taiwan and the Mainland

On the mainland as well as in Taiwan, domestic politics has been an important factor conditioning the policies of one side toward the other. On the Taiwan side, democratization during the 1980s and 1990s dramatically changed the policy toward the mainland from one that reflected the heritage of the civil war as mandated by the KMT to one that sought an improvement of relations, even while asserting the distinctive identity and separateness of the island. Clough 1978 traces the roots of the process of democratization, while its impact on Taipei’s mainland policies is discussed in Rigger 2001 and Alagappa 2001. The policies of recent administrations are covered in Zhao 1999, Su 2009, and Goldstein and Chang 2008. There are fewer studies of the domestic forces that shape the making of mainland policy toward Taiwan. However, it is generally considered that factors including a desire to achieve closure to the civil war, to secure China’s territory, to end foreign interference, and to improve the nation’s strategic position in the Pacific constrain the leadership’s choices and even are reflected in a nationalist mood among the public. Shirk 2007, Huang and Li 2010, Wachman 2007, and Zhao 1999 all discuss these factors and the resultant policies.

Economic Relations Across the Strait

Since the late 1980s, economic relations between Taiwan and the mainland have consistently run ahead of political relations. The growth in trade and in Taiwan’s investment on the mainland has been dramatic. For some commentators, the robust trade is the leading edge of an easing of political relations, while others either doubt the possibility of such spillover or express concern that the growing significance of mainland trade and investment for the economy of Taiwan might provide Beijing with the political leverage to achieve its objectives in the strait. Rosen and Wang 2011, Chang and Goldstein 2007, and Tong 2007 provide general discussions of the nature of cross-strait trade and investment. Tong 2007 examines the role of cross-strait trade in the broader context of “greater China” (Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the mainland). Leng 1996 traces the early development of cross-strait trade and its relationship to democratic reform in Taiwan, while the impact of Taiwan’s increasing reliance on the mainland economy is assessed in Chase, et al. 2004, Kastner 2009, and Tanner 2007. There are several sources for trade and investment figures, which can be quite different depending on the source. From Taiwan there is the statistics site on the Mainland Affairs Council website, and the figures provided by the Taiwan External Trade Development Council. Mainland statistics can be found in the annual China Statistical Yearbook published by the National Statistical Bureau of China.

Security Relations Across the Strait

Since the late 1990s, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China has been dramatically expanding its military capabilities in the Taiwan Strait. In the summer of 2010, the United States Department of Defense 2010 reported that “the balance of cross-Strait military forces continues to shift in the mainland’s favor.” Although Beijing has stated that it is committed to peaceful means to achieve Taiwan’s return to China, it has not ruled out the use of force. In fact, the anti-secession law passed in 2005 specifically mandated the use of “non-peaceful means” should circumstances require it. This policy, as well as the fact that in 1954–1955, 1958, and 1995–1996 the PRC used such means to seek objectives in the Taiwan Strait, has meant that considerable attention has been focused on the military balance across the strait and the scenarios for armed conflict. While all assessments of the cross-strait balance are time-sensitive, there are several general introductions to the issue of cross-strait security issues. These include Chase 2008, Cliff, et al. 2011, Cole 2006, and Swaine, et al. 2007. Discussions of possible conflict scenarios are available in Shlapak 2009 and Tsang 2006. Most recent information can be found in the yearly reports of the United States Department of Defense on the PLA. Most of the American think tanks cited in the first section as well as the Institute for International Strategic Studies publish data regarding the military balance across the strait. Finally, articles on security issues appear in the journals listed in the section Academic Journals.

The United States and the Cross-Strait Relations

As the Chinese civil war came to an end, the Truman administration considered abandoning the remnants of the Republic of China on Taiwan. However, with the outbreak of the Korean War, policy shifted, and by the mid-1950s the United States had incorporated the ROC into its Cold War alliance system in Asia. During the next twenty years, Washington found itself in the middle of the often tense cross-strait relationship. After the rapprochement with and eventual recognition of the PRC in the 1970s, the United States continued to be in the middle, seeking to maintain a stable relationship with each without alienating either even as it sought to advocate for a peaceful solution to the cross-strait controversy.


Garver 1997 examines American diplomatic and military relations with the ROC before the recognition of the PRC, as do Tucker 1994 and Finkelstein 1993. Washington’s role during the offshore islands crises of 1954–1955 and 1958 is examined in Accinelli 1996 and Ross and Changbin 2001, a volume of studies by Western and Chinese scholars. Finally, insights into official thinking can be found in the State Department series Foreign Relations of the United States.

1979 to Present

The road to recognition of the PRC and the subsequent nature of the relationship of the United States with both sides of the strait is the focus of Romberg 2003 and Tucker 2009. Suettinger 2003 and Tyler 1999 also discuss the impact of the Taiwan issue within the broader context of US-China relations after recognition of China. Kirby, et al. 2005 is another volume of studies by Chinese and Western scholars. Garver 1997 examines the three-sided relationship with a focus on the 1995–1996 crisis in the strait, which is also covered in the more general studies of Suettinger 2003 and Tyler 1999. Since 1979, American policy toward Taiwan has been shaped by the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by Congress after the recognition of the PRC. Hao 1997 analyzes the background to this legislation as well as its content. The State Department series Foreign Relations of the United States publishes the diplomatic record of American foreign policy and is the best source for original documents regarding Washington’s policy. As of 2010, documents through the administration of Gerald R. Ford have been published. There are many periodical articles and think-tank studies published regarding ongoing developments in the triangular relationship among the United States, Taiwan, and the PRC. Researchers should look in the Academic Journals section, the publications of American Think Tanks, and the Wire Services and Newspapers news reporting by Taiwan and the mainland Government Agencies.

LAST MODIFIED: 11/29/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199756223-0004

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