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Following a week of unprecedented military tensions, Taiwan’s president has vowed to keep bolstering the island’s defences in the face of mounting Chinese pressure for “reunification”.
Addressing crowds at a National Day rally, Tsai Ing-wen said the path laid down by China to accept Beijin’s rule offered neither freedom, democracy or sovereignty for the self-governing island’s 23 million people, adding: “There should be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people will bow to pressure.”
Taiwan’s situation is “more complex and fluid than at any other point in the past 72 years”, Ms Tsai warned, adding that China’s routine military presence in Taiwan’s air defence zone has seriously affected national security.
Concluding a week of intense military intimidation which saw China send record numbers of warplanes into Taiwanese airspace, Chinese premier Xi Jinping declared on Saturday that his country’s “peaceful” reunification with Taiwan “must be fulfilled”.
“No-one should under-estimate the Chinese people’s strong determination, will and capability to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said.
Speaking outside her presidential palace in Taipei ahead of a rare show of Taiwanese defence capabilities in the annual parade on Sunday, Ms Tsai emphasised the contrast between Beijing's deeply authoritarian, single-party Communist state and the vibrant democracy on the island it regards as a “sacred” breakaway province.
“We will do our utmost to prevent the status quo from being unilaterally altered,” said ms Tsai, who won a landslide re-election last year after promising to stand up to China.
“We will continue to bolster our national defence 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.”
Ms Tsai has prioritised modernising the island’s armed forces to bolster its defences and deterrent, including building its own submarines and long-range missiles which can strike deep into China. Taiwan’s government – which Beijing refuses to recognise – is soon expected to vote through plans to increase defence spending by roughly £6.3bn over the next five years, on top of an existing £12.3bn.
The island has also strengthened its unofficial ties with countries like Japan, Australia and the United States, the latter of which recently entered into the new Aukus security alliance with the UK, labelled “extremely irresponsible” by Beijing.
Despite rarely singling out China in her presidential speeches, Ms Tsai said on Sunday: “The more we achieve, the greater the pressure we face from China. So I want to remind all my fellow citizens that we do not have the privilege of letting down our guard.”
She added that Taiwan wants to contribute to peaceful regional development, even as the situation becomes “more tense and complex” in the Indo-Pacific.
Following the address, Taiwan's Ministry of National Defence showed off a range of weaponry including missile launchers and armoured vehicles, while fighter jets and helicopters soared overhead, later followed by a a group of CM32 tanks and trucks carrying missile systems.
In the past, the Taiwanese government has kept its missile capabilities out of the public eye to avoid appearing provocative, according to Kuo Yu-jen, a defence studies expert at the Institute for National Policy Research in Taiwan.
China has offered a “one country, two systems” model of autonomy to Taiwan, much like it uses with Hong Kong, but all major Taiwanese parties have rejected that, especially after China’s security crackdown in the former British colony.
Ms Tsai repeated an offer to talk to China on the basis of parity, but Beijing, responding some nine hours after she spoke, offered condemnation, saying the country must be “reunified” and that seeking independence closes the door to talks.
“This speech advocated Taiwan independence, incited confrontation, cut apart history and distorted facts,” China's Taiwan Affairs Office said.
“The independence provocation by the Democratic Progressive Party authorities is the source of tension and turbulence in cross-strait relations and the greatest threat to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” it added, referring to Ms Tsai’s ruling party.
Some experts had suggested that China’s intensifying military presence in Taiwanese airspace – which drew alarm from leaders around the world – could be viewed as a warning to Ms Tsai ahead of the parade on Sunday. China’s National Day also fell on 1 October, followed by its Golden Week holiday.
“The threat has grown over time with China’s increased military capacity. It’s important to remember the psychological impact that this has on Taiwan’s population. It’s a little like the threat of nuclear war of the Cold War,” Dafydd Fell, director of the Centre of Taiwan Studies at SOAS University of London, recently told The Independent.
But he suggested that Mr Xi’s Taiwan policies had been “a complete failure”, adding: “Such hardline military threats against Taiwan or the crackdown on opposition in Hong Kong tend to backfire, as they push Taiwan’s public opinion even further away.”
Additional reporting by agencies