Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose military has been engaging in unprecedented provocations against Taiwan, said over the weekend that China‘s goal of absorbing the tiny island democracy “must be fulfilled” — an assertion that has triggered swift pushback from Taiwan‘s leaders.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen vowed Sunday to fight any attempt by the communist government in Beijing to annex or take Taiwan militarily. She said the island will strengthen its defenses in response to mainland China‘s most aggressive military posturing in decades.
The back and forth, which coincides with reports that a contingent of U.S. special operations soldiers are training military forces in Taiwan, is presenting a fresh foreign policy headache for the Biden administration, which has sought to downplay the prospect of escalating U.S.-Chinese tension over the island.
China claims Taiwan as part of its national territory. Weeks of aggressive Chinese military moves have triggered mounting concern in Washington that Beijing may be on the verge of using force to absorb Taiwan.
Such concerns have been swirling for years, but they have spiked with China‘s recent provocations.
Growing waves of Chinese fighter jets have flown in formation into Taiwanese airspace over the past 10 days. More than 150 warplanes, including nuclear-capable H-6 bombers, have appeared in areas off Taiwan‘s southern coast.
On Oct. 4 alone, a record 56 Chinese aircraft were spotted making such incursions. Taiwanese jet fighters scrambled in response. The State Department has said it is “very concerned” about the prospect of Chinese military coercion against Taiwan, an unofficial U.S. ally.
When pressed for a response last week, President Biden told reporters he had spoken with Mr. Xi and that the Chinese leader agreed to abide by the “Taiwan agreement.”
Mr. Biden was apparently referring to a phone call between the two men in early September.
“We made it clear that I don’t think he should be doing anything other than abiding by the agreement,” Mr. Biden told reporters Tuesday.
By Saturday, the president’s remarks appeared to be wishful thinking. Mr. Xi made global headlines by vowing that China will find a way to achieve “reunification” with Taiwan.
In a speech in Beijing‘s Great Hall of the People to hundreds of masked Communist Party officials, Mr. Xi said reuniting Taiwan with China remains a long-held goal as part of rejuvenating the nation. He blamed the decades-old separation of the island state on past Chinese weakness.
“The Taiwan issue arises from national weakness and chaos,” he said. “It will definitely be resolved with the rejuvenation of the nation.”
Mr. Xi said the division between Taiwan and China should be resolved peacefully, but he warned that those who betray the motherland and divide the country “never end up well.”
The line drew loud applause from the assembled officials marking the 110th anniversary of the revolution that ended China‘s last imperial dynasty in 1911 and established the Republic of China.
“No one should underestimate the Chinese people’s staunch determination, firm will and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Mr. Xi said. “The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled and will definitely be fulfilled.”
Mr. Xi vowed in a July speech to “smash” any Taiwanese effort to declare formal independence. In 2019, he threatened to use force to reunite the island with the mainland.
The comments about past weakness appeared aimed at Washington and perhaps specifically at Mr. Biden’s reference days earlier to a “Taiwan agreement.”
Taiwan is located 100 miles off the coast of China.
As a civil war ended in 1949 with a victory for the Communists, the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island and continued to claim legitimacy as the Republic of China.
The Taiwanese government has remained in an ambiguous status after the administration of President Carter formally recognized the communist People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government.
U.S.-Chinese ties have been strained over years of differing interpretations regarding the status of Taiwan within the “one-China policy” outlined in diplomatic communiques between Washington and Beijing.
Law provides that Washington will help Taiwan arm itself but does not guarantee that American forces will intervene should China attempt to invade the island, a U.S.-aligned democracy and a force of free-market capitalism in East Asia.
Taiwanese officials have rejected Beijing‘s call for reunification under the concept of “one country, two systems.” They said the island democracy’s future rests in the hands of the Taiwanese people.
Nerves have been on edge in light of China‘s aggressive action toward another democratic enclave: Hong Kong. Beijing once agreed to allow Hong Kong to keep its democratic system under the same “one-country, two systems” formulation, but it reneged last year and took control of the former British colony.
It remains to be seen how the tensions over Taiwan will play out.
Reports in recent days said the U.S. secretly sent teams of special operations soldiers and Marines to Taiwan to train military forces there.
About two dozen troops have been conducting training missions with Taiwan‘s ground forces for at least a year to shore up the island’s defenses against an invasion by Beijing, according to a report last week from The Wall Street Journal.
White House and Pentagon officials have declined to comment on the report.
Ms. Tsai, who vowed to stand up to Beijing‘s pressure, did not mention the issue of U.S. forces on Sunday.
“We will continue to bolster our national defense and demonstrate our determination to defend ourselves in order to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us,” the Taiwanese president said in a speech marking her country’s national day.
“There should,” she said, according to Reuters, “be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people will bow to pressure.”
After the address, the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense showed off a range of weaponry, including missile launchers and armored vehicles, while fighter jets and helicopters soared overhead, according to Associated Press reports.
The show of air power included a formation of F-16, Indigenous Defense Fighters and Mirage 2000s, which left wide white contrails in their wake. It was followed by a display of CM-32 tanks and trucks carrying missile systems.
China, meanwhile, has been on a military spending spree for years. It has rapidly increased its fleet of warships and combat aircraft, including strategic bombers and jet fighters.
In a January 2019 speech marking the 40th anniversary of Beijing‘s efforts to improve ties with Taiwan, Mr. Xi urged the Taiwanese to submit to the reality that they “must and will be” reunited with China.
“We make no promise to abandon the use of force and retain the option of taking all necessary measures,” the Chinese president said in the speech to military officials and others gathered at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
On Saturday, Mr. Xi said “Taiwan independence” poses the greatest obstacle to the reunification of “the motherland” and a “serious hidden danger to national rejuvenation.”
He criticized “foreign interference” in Taiwan, an apparent reference to stepped-up U.S. support over the past several years.
In March, the commander of the Indo-Pacific Command told Congress that he saw signs that China‘s government was speeding up plans to retake Taiwan and could act by 2030.
Four months later, the command’s senior intelligence officer, Rear Adm. Michael Studeman, warned that conflict over Taiwan was imminent and said China was engaging in low-level information and economic warfare against the island.
“It’s already a struggle underway,” he said. “Whether or not the Chinese resort to a military option is in question. To us, it’s only a matter of time, not a matter of ‘if,’ because if you understand the problem set, you understand that Taiwan will unlikely fold based on economic and informational and diplomatic influence alone.”
• Mike Glenn contributed to this report.