Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said Monday there is “no room for compromise” over the self-ruled island’s sovereignty but she is willing to work with China to find “mutually acceptable ways” to maintain peace across the Taiwan Strait.
“The consensus of the Taiwanese people … is to defend our sovereignty and our free and democratic way of life. There is no room for compromise on this,” Tsai said in a speech marking Taiwan’s National Day, delivered as tensions between Taipei and Beijing simmer at the highest point in recent decades.
Taiwan, home to 23 million people, lies fewer than 110 miles (177 kilometers) off the coast of China. For more than 70 years the two sides have been governed separately, but that hasn’t stopped China’s ruling Communist Party from claiming the island as its own – despite having never controlled it.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has said that “reunification” between China and Taiwan is inevitable and refused to rule out the use of force – but in her speech Monday, Tsai urged Chinese leaders not to go down that path.
“I call on the Beijing authorities that resorting to war must not be the option for cross-strait relations,” Tsai said. “Only by respecting Taiwanese people’s insistence on sovereignty, freedom and democracy can we resume positive interactions across the Taiwan Strait.”
Following the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in early August, China stepped up military pressure tactics on the island, sending fighter jets across the median line of the Taiwan Strait, the body of water separating Taiwan and China.
For decades, the median line had served as an informal demarcation line between the two, with military incursions across it being rare.
Last week, Taiwan’s Defense Minister warned that Chinese fighter jets or drones that intrude into Taiwan’s territorial airspace – defined as 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometers) from the island’s shores – will be regarded as a “first strike,” as Taipei seeks to step-up its defenses in response to Beijing’s military pressure.
Tsai said in her speech Monday that Taiwan is an “important symbol” of democracy in the world and its people are determined to defend the island.
“The international community is very clear that defending Taiwan’s security equals defending regional stability and democratic values. If Taiwan’s democratic freedoms are destroyed, it will be a major setback for democracies around the world,” she said.
She reiterated that Taiwan has been strengthening national defense awareness, as well as acquiring and increasing the production of precision weapons to boost asymmetric warfare capabilities – a term for military strategies to counter more powerful militaries.
The ceremony in Taiwan’s capital Taipei on Monday marked 111 years since the start of a revolution in mainland China that ultimately resulted in the collapse of its 2,200-year-old imperial system and the establishment of the Republic of China.
The Republic of China ruled the mainland until its defeat to the Communists at the end of the civil war in 1949, when it retreated to Taiwan.
The festivities on Monday were attended by international guests including the President of Palau – one of 14 countries that have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan. US congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, was also in attendance.
During the celebrations, a military helicopter was seen hovering over the cloudy skies of Taipei with a national flag, while military bands played outside the presidential office.
Analysts said Taiwan will likely face increasing pressure from Beijing after Chinese leader Xi is widely expected to extend his hold on power for another five years in a Communist Party meeting scheduled to begin on October 16.
“The biggest challenges would definitely be the pressure from the PRC,” said Austin Wang, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who specializes in Taiwanese politics, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
He predicted that Beijing’s policies toward Taiwan could become “more unstable and unpredictable,” in the medium term.
“If Xi is able to find a way to make his zero-Covid policy and basic economic performance coexists, this achievement will be great enough to make Xi and China patient,” Wang said, referring to China’s uncompromising Covid containment policy. “If economy in China collapses, Xi and PRC will lose the legitimacy; Xi will then turn to nationalism, which includes unifying Taiwan.”
Taiwan’s Defense Ministry has said it is reviewing whether to extend mandatory military training for eligible men – set at four months – to a longer period in response to the threat from Beijing.
And Lev Nachman, an assistant professor in politics at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, said the Taiwanese government should continue to engage the public over their role in the defense of the island.
“The best thing Taiwan can do is to build its defenses at home in a way that is not flashy or provocative, but creates meaningful change that better prepares both Taiwan’s military and civil society for potential conflict,” he said.