Political Science China-Taiwan Relations
Steven Goldstein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0004


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.

  • Bush, Richard C. Untying the Knot: Making Peace in the Taiwan Strait. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005.

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    An analysis of the fundamental issues in cross-strait relations during the administrations of Lee Teng-hui (1988–2000) and Chen Shui-bian (2000–2008) by a former US government official deeply involved in cross-strait relations.

  • Chiu, Hungdah. China and the Question of Taiwan; Documents and Analysis. New York: Praeger, 1973.

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    A useful compilation of documents reflecting mainland views of the Taiwan issue before the détente at the end of the 20th century.

  • Clough, Ralph N. Cooperation or Conflict in the Taiwan Strait? Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

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    A longtime US government official traces the beginnings of cross-strait dealings in the 1980s and 1990s.

  • Rigger, Shelley. Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.

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    A leading American academic specialist on Taiwan offers an informal and personal introduction to the island as well as its relations with the mainland.

  • Republic of China, Mainland Affairs Council. 1994. Relations Across the Taiwan Straits. Taipei: Mainland Affairs Council.

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    Although drafted by a KMT administration at an early stage in the 1990s cross-strait détente, this document contains the essence of Taipei’s view on the ROC’s origins and a current status on the island.

  • Roy, Denny. Taiwan: A Political History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 2003.

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    A specialist on Asian security matters looks at the evolution of Taiwan’s relations with the mainland against the background of the island’s history.

  • Rubinstein, Murray A., ed. Taiwan: A New History. Expanded ed. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2007.

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    Prominent experts present a deep historical perspective on the intertwined themes of Taiwan’s domestic development and the history of its unique relationship with the mainland.

  • Su, Chi Taiwan’s Relations with Mainland China: A Tail Wagging Two Dogs. New York: Routledge, 2009.

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    A former Taiwan official provides his perspective on cross-strait developments since the 1990s.

  • Taiwan Affairs Office. The One-China Principle and the Taiwan Issue. Beijing: Taiwan Affairs Office and the Information Office of the State Council, People’s Republic of China, 2000.

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    This is a major statement made by Beijing regarding its position on cross-strait relations that was issued on the eve of the 2000 elections in Taiwan.

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