Tegucigalpa swaps Taipei for Beijing, how does Xiomara Castro benefit? 3:12

(CNN Español) -- Taiwan and its tense relationship with China are back in the world's attention: On Saturday, voters on the self-ruled island will elect their new leader under the shadow of Beijing, which has been increasing its threats against Taipei for the past eight years.

The world is keeping a close eye on not only the winner of the election, but how Taiwan's authoritarian neighbor will respond. Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader of the last generation, has called the unification of Taiwan with the mainland a "historical inevitability," to be achieved by force if necessary.

  • Taiwan is about to elect its new president. What's at stake and how might China respond?

The last time Taiwan had a change of government — when the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power in 2016 — Beijing cut off most communications with Taipei and significantly increased economic, diplomatic and military pressure on the island in the years that followed, turning the Taiwan Strait into one of the world's main geopolitical flashpoints.

But the tensions between China and Taiwan don't end there.

In August 2022, Nancy Pelosi, the then-speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, generated similar tensions during her visit to the island that has become in recent years a recurring symbol of the rivalry between the United States and China, the world's two leading economic powers.


Pelosi landed in Taiwan as part of her Asia tour, and amid repeated threats from China over the trip, which said some U.S. politicians were "playing with fire." It was the first time in 25 years that a speaker of the House of Representatives visited the island.

Every gesture from Washington towards Taipei regularly receives a reaction from Beijing, and in 2022 there were many: the last one occurred last week, when Pelosi's intentions to travel to Taiwan became known.

China's Foreign Ministry then vowed to take "resolute and forceful measures" if they went ahead with the trip.

  • Why did Nancy Pelosi decide to visit Taiwan despite warnings from China?

Another tense situation had occurred in May 2022, when US President Joe Biden said that his country would respond militarily if China intervened in Taiwan, in the context that Russia's invasion of Ukraine has raised concerns in Taipei about a possible similar action by Beijing.

China expresses displeasure over Nancy Pelosi's possible visit to Taiwan 1:03

"We agree with the One China policy. We signed it and all the corresponding agreements were made from there, but the idea that you can take it by force, just take it by force, is (just not) appropriate," Biden said.

  • What is the history of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship? Keys to understanding the scope of Pelosi's possible trip

While in June 2021 a group of U.S. senators flew to Taiwan on a military plane to announce a major donation of Covid-19 vaccines, and the trip was seen by Beijing as the latest in a series of provocations.

And in October of that same year, some 150 Chinese warplanes flew close to Taiwan's airspace in the largest incursion to date, according to Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense.

Taiwan Air Force pilots stand with their Mirage 2000 fighters during an exercise in January 2019. (Credit: SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images)

The tensions are merely a reminder of the decades-long hostility between governments in Beijing and Taipei, with both sides historically claiming to be the legitimate rulers of all of China's territories, including Taiwan.

Here's a look at this historic dispute.

  • This is Taiwan: Location, Government, Languages Spoken, and More Data

The Nationalist Government

Taiwan's official name, Republic of China, dates back to its founding in 1911 following the collapse of China's last imperial dynasty.

  • ANALYSIS | China is on alert by the Quad strategic security group, but its warnings only strengthen it

Under the rule of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), led by Chiang Kai-shek, the Republic of China had to contend in the early 1930s and then during World War II with the advances of the Empire of Japan, as well as the growing power of the Chinese communists led by Mao Zedong.

Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan in the 1950s. (Credit: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1945, following the Japanese defeat, the Republic of China regained the island of Taiwan, which China had lost in an earlier war with the Japanese. But four years later, in 1949, the Kuomintang was defeated in a bloody civil war on the mainland by the Communist Party army.

That same year, Mao founded the People's Republic of China, with its capital in Beijing.

About 1.2 million Chinese, mainly military personnel, accompanied Chiang Kai-Shek's government in its exodus to Taiwan, according to estimates made by the Taiwanese authorities, and after defeating a brief incursion by communist troops on the island, they managed to establish themselves there.

Mao's forces, on the other hand, expanded their control on the Chinese mainland, and have since regarded Taiwan as a renegade province and an "inalienable part" that will eventually return to Beijing's control.

Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong shakes hands with U.S. President Richard Nixon after a historic meeting in Beijing in February 1972 on the backdrop of the Cold War. (Credit: AFP/Getty Images)

Regional Dispute, Global Tension

Separated by a strait, conflicting ideological stances, and a historical conflict, the two Chinas – the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China – have coexisted ever since amid tensions, despite sharing traditions, culture, and a common language, Mandarin Chinese.

This tension between Beijing and Taipei has always been linked to the equally difficult relationship between Beijing and Washington.

The U.S. government, an ally of the Kuomintang during World War II, did not initially recognize the legitimacy of the Communist government in mainland China. On the contrary, he continued to give his political support to Taipei.

A Shenyang J-16 fighter jet from China.

UN member states, however, recognized the legitimacy of the People's Republic in 1971, including its permanent seat on the Security Council, which until then had been occupied by Taipei.

On the other hand, the rapprochement between China and the United States that began in the early 1970s and in the midst of the Cold War led to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing in 1979, and the relocation of the US embassy from Taipei to Beijing.

China Could Use Military Force to Control Taiwan 1:57

But far from signifying a break in the relationship with Taiwan, the US has maintained strong commercial and military ties with the island, which it considers a key ally in the region, within the framework of a "strategic ambiguity".

This includes Washington's commitment to help Taiwan, a democratically governed island of more than 23 million people, defend itself against a possible invasion by the Communists in China.

"One China"

For decades, the Taiwan Strait has been the scene of military tensions and skirmishes between China and Taiwan, and Beijing even bombed outlying islands controlled by Taipe on two occasions.

Between 1995 and 1996 there was the last major crisis after the visit of the then president of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui, to the United States. China fired missiles into waters near Taiwan in response to the meeting, and the U.S. ended up sending two aircraft carriers to the area.

At the same time, representatives from mainland China and Taiwan had initiated a rapprochement in the early 1990s, capped by the 1992 summit in Hong Kong, then still under the control of the United Kingdom.

President Tsai Ing-wen during a rally on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Taoyuan, Taiwan, ahead of the presidential election.

Beijing and the pro-reunification parties in Taiwan say that during that meeting there was agreement on the "one China" principle, meaning that both sides recognize the existence of a single country that must be reunified.

But they disagreed on who is the legitimate authority to do so and even on the scope of that "1992 consensus," today even rejected by Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, whose party traditionally advocates for the island's formal independence.

"There is only one China and the government of the People's Republic is the only legitimate one and Taiwan is part of China," the Foreign Ministry said in Beijing.

In Taiwan, the official stance is more ambiguous on reunification, and the island's governments have sought to maintain the status quo. But the Kuomintang and other forces for reunification also insist that the Republic of China is the legitimate government of the entire territory.

With reporting by Simone McCarthy, Eric Cheung, Nectar Gan, Brad Lendon, Kevin Liptak, Donald Judd, Wayne Chang and Ben Westcott.