China’s president, Xi Jinping, has vowed to realise “reunification” with Taiwan by peaceful means, after a week of heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
Taiwan responded shortly after by calling on Beijing to abandon its “coercion”, reiterating that only Taiwan’s people could decide their future.
Beijing regards democratically run Taiwan as its breakaway province. In the past, it has repeatedly pledged to take it, by force if necessary. Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen, however, has said the island of 24 million people is already a sovereign nation with no need to declare independence, and has no wish for conflict.
Tensions across the Taiwan strait have been running high in recent weeks. In the first four days of October, for example, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sent nearly 150 planes into Taiwan’s air defence identification (ADIZ) zone. Figures and state-run media in China have labelled such actions as a demonstration of strength, but many western governments condemned the latest shows of force as acts of intimidation and aggression.
Washington has said it is “deeply concerned” about China’s actions that undermine peace across the Taiwan Strait. “We are going to stand up and speak out, both privately and publicly when we see the kinds of activities that are fundamentally destabilising,” said Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser this week.
Meanwhile, according to the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, about two dozen US special forces soldiers and an unspecified number of marines have been training Taiwanese forces, in the latest indication of the extent of US involvement in the tensions in the area. The report said that trainers were first sent to Taiwan by the Trump administration, but their presence had not been reported until now.
It is under this backdrop that Xi’s speech on Saturday has been closely scrutinised. Speaking at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Xi said the Chinese people had a “glorious tradition” of opposing separatism.
“Taiwan’s independence separatism is the biggest obstacle to achieving the reunification of the motherland, and the most serious hidden danger to national rejuvenation,” he said the day before the anniversary of the revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty in 1911. Taiwan marks 10 October, when the revolution began, as its national day.
Xi said “reunification through a peaceful manner is the most in line with the overall interest of the Chinese nation, including Taiwan compatriots”, but added that China would protect its sovereignty and unity.
“No one should underestimate the Chinese people’s staunch determination, firm will, and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Xi said. “The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled.”
He added: “The Taiwan question is purely an internal matter for China, one which brooks no external interference.”
Analysts say that Xi’s speech struck a slightly softer tone than in July, his last major speech that mentioned Taiwan, in which he vowed to “smash” any attempts at formal independence.
“It’s actually relatively moderate – even mundane – in the section talking about Taiwan,” said George Yin, of Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. “Although the current situation looks tense, Xi does not ultimately want to see it out of control across the Taiwan Strait, especially after this week’s meeting between Jake Sullivan and Xi’s top foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi.”
He added: “All sides – China, Taiwan and the US – understand that unnecessary accident is not in anyone’s interest, after all.”
In response, Taiwan’s presidential office said Taiwan was a sovereign independent country, not part of the People’s Republic of China, and had clearly rejected China’s offer of “one country, two systems” to rule the island. “The nation’s future rests in the hands of Taiwan’s people,” it said.
In a separate statement, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council called on Beijing to “abandon its provocative steps of intrusion, harassment and destruction” and return to talks.
China’s airforce mounted four straight days of incursions into Taiwan’s air defence zone from 1 October, involving close to 150 aircraft.
Speaking shortly before Xi, Taiwan’s premier, Su Tseng-chang, noted that China had been “flexing its muscles” and causing regional tensions.
“This is why countries that believe in freedom, democracy and human rights, and based on shared values, are all working together and have repeatedly warned that China should not invade Taiwan,” Su said.
With Reuters and the Associated Press