Do the US and China have a ‘Taiwan agreement’?

Do the United States and China have an agreement on Taiwan’s political status?

The question was raised on Tuesday when US President Joe Biden told reporters that he and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, had agreed to “abide by the Taiwan agreement”, leaving many around the world scratching their heads.

Biden made the remark at the White House in response to a reporter’s question about rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait, with Beijing sending more than 150 military planes towards Taiwan over three consecutive days amid celebrations of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

On Monday alone, it sent a record 56 fighter jets into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), forcing the Taiwanese air force to scramble its jets in response.

“I’ve spoken with Xi about Taiwan,” Biden told reporters when asked about China’s provocative actions. “We agree we – we’ll abide by the Taiwan agreement. That’s where we are. And we made it clear that I don’t think he should be doing anything other than abiding by the agreement.”

The US president appeared to be referring to a 90-minute conversation he had with Xi on September 9. And while his remark appeared aimed at calming fears, it only caused confusion.

Because there is no official agreement between Beijing and Washington about Taiwan.Known formally as the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan is a self-ruled island that lies about 161 kilometres (100 miles) off the coast of mainland China. It is a democracy with a separate government and a military. But despite its de facto independence, most countries do not consider Taiwan a separate state due to China’s claims over the territory.

Once a backwater of Imperial China, Taiwan was colonised by the Japanese during the World Wars. In 1949, the Chinese nationalists fled there after losing a bloody civil war to the communists who established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with its government in Beijing.

In Taipei, the nationalists’ ROC government continued to claim to represent all of China and even held a seat on the United Nations Security Council. But from 1971 onwards, most countries – including the US – began dropping diplomatic recognition of the ROC in Taipei in favour of the PRC in Beijing.

This historical dispute is at the crux of Beijing’s much-hyped “One China” principle.

While Beijing has repeatedly threatened to use force if Taiwan ever formally declares independence, the sabre-rattling has increased under Xi, who sees reuniting Taiwan with mainland China as an issue of legacy.

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