Taiwan president says China threat growing ‘every day’ as Biden criticises Beijing

By Helen Davidson

Taiwan is on the “front lines” in the fight for democracy as the threat from China grows “every day”, its president Tsai Ing-wen has said, as US president Joe Biden criticised China’s “coercive” actions in the Taiwan Strait.

The democratically elected Tsai told CNN she remained open to dialogue with China’s leader Xi Jinping, but amid increased risk of military action she had “faith” that the US would come to the island’s defence.

She also confirmed the presence of US military trainers on the island, the first time she has personally done so. But she it was “not as many as people thought”, adding: “We have a wide range of cooperation with the US aiming at increasing our defence capability.”

In an interview recorded on Tuesday, Tsai repeated calls for other democracies in the region, including Japan, Australia and South Korea, to help support Taiwan.

“When authoritarian regimes demonstrate expansionist tendencies, democratic countries should come together to stand against them. Taiwan is on the front lines.”

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Beijing claims Taiwan as a province of China. Unification is a key goal of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who has not ruled out taking Taiwan by force. Beijing regards Taiwan’s democratically elected government as separatists but the island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, has said Taiwan is already a sovereign country with no need to declare independence.

Taiwan holds democratic elections, has a free media, its own military and currency. It has enjoyed de facto independence since the end of the civil war in 1949, when the losing Kuomintang faction fled to the island. The Chinese Communist party has never ruled Taiwan.

Few countries recognise Taiwan’s government, many having transferred their formal ties to Beijing from the 1970s onwards. Beijing’s “one-China principle” formally declares its claim over Taiwan, and various other nations have their own “One China” policies, which lay out the level of recognition their governments afford Beijing’s policy.

Bonnie Glaser, the director of the Asia programme at the German Marshall Fund, said flights into Taiwan's air defence identification zone were increasingly used for training, but also “to signal to the United States and Taiwan not to cross Chinese red lines. And to stress Taiwan’s air force, to force them to scramble, to stress the aircraft, the pilots, force them to do more maintenance and test the responses of Taiwan’s air defence system.”

Helen Davidson and Chi Hui Lin in Taipei

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Tsai said the Chinese Communist party needed to decide what sort of relationship it wanted with the world.

“Does Xi want to have a peaceful relationship with everybody in the region or in the world, or does he want to be a in a dominant position so that everybody listens to him, listens to China?” she said.

China is becoming increasingly isolated on the world stage as Xi stands by the goal of annexing Taiwan. Beijing considers Taiwan to be a province of China, and has not ruled out using force to “reunify”.

Tsai first came to power in 2016, and was reelected in 2020. Beijing considers her stance - that Taiwan is a sovereign nation with no need to declare independence - to be separatist, and has refused to engage with her government. Speaking to CNN, Tsai said more communication “would be helpful” between the two governments “so we can reduce misunderstandings”.

“Given our differences in terms of political systems, we can sit down and talk about our differences and try to make arrangements so we can coexist peacefully,” she said.

Asked why cross-straits dialogue had deteriorated, Tsai said the situation and China’s plan for the region had “changed a lot”.

China’s military activity in the region and acts of intimidation towards Taiwan have grown in recent years, and increased dramatically in the last few months. In the first four days of October China’s air force sent 149 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone.

PLA drills and exercises have also increased in the region as China modernises and expands its military, and in response western nations and allies have increased their military presence and participation in joint exercises.

Taiwan’s military can not match China’s but Tsai has pledged to increase military spending and focus on an asymmetric defence system to make it more difficult for China to attack or consider attacking.

Last week, Biden set off alarm bells in Beijing by saying the US had a firm commitment to help Taiwan defend itself in the event of a Chinese attack. The White House later downplayed the president’s comments, which came during a CNN town hall, and said he did not mean to imply any changes in the US “one-China policy”, which recognises Beijing but allows informal relations and defence ties with Taipei.

On Tuesday Tsai told CNN people had different interpretations of Biden’s comments but she had faith the US would defend Taiwan if China made a move.

On Wednesday Biden told leaders at the east Asia Summit – an annual meeting of 18 Asia-Pacific nations which was also attended by Chinese premier Li Keqiang – of his concern at China’s actions in the Taiwan Strait, saying they undermined peace and stability in the region.

“The president also reiterated the US commitment to the international rules-based order and expressed concern over threats to that order,” the White House said in a statement. “He made clear that the United States will continue to stand with allies and partners in support of democracy, human rights, rule of law, and freedom of the seas.”

His comments came after China said Taiwan had no right to join the United Nations, in response to a US call for the democratic island to have greater involvement in the world body.

In a statement marking 50 years since the UN general assembly voted to seat Beijing and boot out Taipei, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said on Tuesday he regretted that Taiwan had been increasingly excluded on the world stage.

“Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the UN system is not a political issue, but a pragmatic one. That is why we encourage all UN member states to join us in supporting Taiwan’s robust, meaningful participation throughout the UN system and in the international community,” he said.

In response to Blinken’s statement, China emphasised its position that Taiwan’s government had no place on the global diplomatic stage. “Taiwan has no right to join the United Nations,” Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing, said. “The United Nations is an international governmental organisation composed of sovereign states … Taiwan is a part of China.”

With Agence France-Presse and Associated Press