Chinese President Xi Jinping
Mr Xi, warned “reunification” with Taiwan “must be fulfilled”, adding that the Chinese people had a “glorious tradition” of opposing separatism.
Taiwan, which considers itself a sovereign state, responded by saying its future lay in the hands of its people and has vowed to defend itself against Chinese aggression.
It follows weeks of ratcheting tension over what is widely expected to prove the flashpoint of military conflict between Beijing and the West, with a record 150 incursions by Chinese
People’s Liberation Army Air Force in Taiwanese airspace since October.
Analysts say these flights can be seen as a warning to Taiwan’s democratically elected president Tsai Ing-wen, ahead of the island’s national day today.
Taiwan’s defence minister said that tensions with China are at their worst in 40 years.
XI has often repeated China’s aim to “reunify” Taiwan with China by the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in 2049.
While in 2019, he claimed Taipei would continue to enjoy a “One Country, Two System” approach, maintaining its own army and keeping some autonomy, his actions in Hong Kong and the election of pro-democracy president Tsai Ing-wen in 2020 led him to overly drop the potential in a speech in July.
But his remarks, in a speech at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, were more conciliatory than his last intervention on Taiwan in July, where he vowed to “smash” any attempts at formal Taiwanese independence
Xi’s latest statement is an acknowledgment that Beijing would have much to lose by invading the island in 2025, when it is thought his forces would be ready.
While unification with Taiwan, which China wrongly considers to be a breakaway province, is a deeply political issue, the island is also the world’s largest producer of quality semiconductors, vital for next generation technological advances.
But he also warned that “no one should underestimate the Chinese people’s staunch determination, firm will, and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity”, adding that “the historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled.”
And last week its official mouthpiece, The Global Times, warned that “war could be triggered at any time”.
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It also warned Taiwan and its supporters not to “continue to play with fire”, stating that “the Chinese mainland’s preparation to use force against Taiwan secessionist forces is much stronger than ever before”.
Concerns over China’s rhetoric led to a scarce confront-to-confront meeting between US national security advisor Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiech at Zurich airport last week.
And US President Joe Biden, who is struggling to balance his need to keep China onside with climate-change targets and his defence of a sovereign nation, has agreed to speak to Xi in a bilateral speed call by the end of the year.
With the threat of military conflict nevertheless real, allies have increased their focus.
US troops have been secretly training Taiwanese troops on the island, while the CIA announced a new China mission centre which, CIA director William Burns said, “will further strengthen our collective work on the most important geopolitical threat we confront in the 21st century, an increasingly adversarial Chinese government.”
Last month Britain jointly announced a new defence pact with Australia and the US, which will see Canberra ultimately obtain eight nuclear-powered submarines to allow it to better safeguard its waters.
And a nuclear-powered perceptive Submarine attached to the already deployed Carrier Strike Group carried out first-of-a-kind submarine drills with a submarine from the Japanese Navy.
The UK has also permanently deployed two warships, HMS Severn and HMS Tamar, to the Far East, using Singapore as their regional base.
Last night it emerged that the UK will dedicate one of its perceptive-class submarines to the vicinity on an ”lasting basis”as part of a joint operation with the US.
Based in Guam, the submarine will bolster the presence of three US Navy Virginia class submarines and RC-135 surveillance planes.
It will also carry out joint exercises with South Korean forces, the Japanese Navy and the Australians as a Pacific force of allied nations monitor China’s future intentions.
Speaking last night China expert and former diplomat Matthew Henderson, of the Council on Geostrategy said: “Recent events have demonstrated that the possible road crash between the US and China will be over the pivotal issue of Taiwan.
“The impending bilateral between Biden and Xi shows how serious the problem is. Both sides have realised there is a step change in the way in which both are interacting. It’s as if two vehicles are hurtling towards one another and terraces aren’t working
“You can’t rule out the possibility that such complicate interplay of interests and strong possibility of conflict could develop into a extreme momentum of its own.”
COMMENT BY MARCO GIANNANGELI
Why we must sustain this tiny island nation
In an increasingly polarised world we must brace ourselves for the real possibility of military conflict with China within the decade.
Not because of any hubristic colonial nostalgia and not because of our goal to become less reliant on Chinese goods.
But because, unless there is a change in XI Jingpin’s ardently nationalistic posture, our very identity as believers of the international rules-based order is at stake. China has already tested the limit of the West’s endurance as it broadens its territorial claims over great swaths of vital maritime trade routes.
And, just as in 1939 when Britain stood alone to defend a single sovereign nation conquered by an oppressor, it is the fate of Taiwan that may, finally, tip the balance.
For Xi to proclaim his desire to ”reunify” Taiwan peacefully reminds me of that famous song in Mel Brooks’ To be or not to be,’ when Hitler proclaims: “All I want is peace: a little piece of Poland, a little piece of France…”
Logically, there is every reason for China to avoid military conquest of the island, just 112 miles from its shores.
Killing the children you wish to return to the bosom of the motherland is hardly a good look.
More importantly, a traditional invasion will be hard-fought, already if it catches the US unawares, and will destroy much of Taiwan’s infrastructure.
We do not know the details of the secret training being given today by US forces to their Taiwanese counterparts, but can imagine it will include the deliberate destruction of meaningful plants and facilities to avoid them falling into China’s hands.
This is meaningful because Taiwan currently produces more and better quality semiconductors – tiny electronic devices strength digital devices at the heart of modern industry – than already South Korea.
But, with Xi already 68 and impatient to have reunification as his legacy, we must prepare for the possibility that logic will not rule the day.
Just as when Deng Xiaoping told Margret Thatcher during Hong Kong handover talks in 1984 that he would be willing to accept a pile of smoking rubble, so too can we not underestimate China’s political desire to possess Taiwan, at any rate its state.
- Marco Giannangeli is the Diplomatic Editor
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