Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen says her government will not bow down to pressure from China and will continue to bolster the island’s defences in order to protect its democratic way of life.
Tsai’s strong riposte on Sunday comes a day after Chinese President Xi Jinping promised once again to realise “peaceful reunification” with the self-ruled island.
Claimed by China as its own territory, Taiwan has come under growing military and political pressure to accept Beijing’s rule.
This includes repeated Chinese air force incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. During the first week of October alone, Beijing sent some 149 military planes near the island, forcing Taiwan to scramble its fighter jets and sparking international concern.
Addressing a rally held to mark Taiwan’s National Day in central Taipei, Tsai said she hoped for an easing of tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
She said her government will not “act rashly”, but said “there should be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people will bow to pressure”.
Taiwan 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,” she said in the speech outside the presidential office.
“This is because the path that China has laid out offers neither a free and democratic way of life for Taiwan, nor sovereignty for our 23 million people.”
Known formally as the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan is a democratically governed island that lies about 161 kilometres (100 miles) off the coast of mainland China.
The two sides have been ruled separately since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when the communists founded the People’s Republic of China in Beijing and the defeated nationalists fled to Taiwan and established a government there.
Despite its de facto independence, Beijing views Taiwan as a breakaway province, and 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.
Tensions have risen to their highest under Xi, who broke off official communication with Taipei following Tsai’s election five years ago.
Beijing calls the 65-year-old a separatist who refuses to acknowledge that Taiwan is part of “one China”.
In response to Tsai’s National Day speech, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said that it “incited confrontation” and “distorted facts”.
Tsai repeated on Sunday an offer to talk to China on the basis of “parity”.
She said Taiwan’s goodwill will not change and her government will do all it can to prevent the status quo with China from being unilaterally altered.
Tsai went on to warn that Taiwan’s situation is “more complex and fluid than at any other point in the past 72 years”, and said that China’s routine military presence in Taiwan’s air defence zone has seriously affected national security and aviation safety.
Taiwan stands on the front lines of defending democracy, she added.
“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.”
Tsai is overseeing a military modernisation programme to bolster its defences and deterrence, including building its own submarines and long-range missiles that can strike deep into China.
The armed forces formed a major part of the National Day parade Tsai oversaw, with fighter jets roaring across the skies above the presidential office and truck-mounted missile launchers among other weaponry passing in front of the stage where she sat.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Hong Kong, described Tsai’s speech as “defiant” and said it reflected the “prevailing view in Taiwan at the moment, where the majority of the people are equally resistant to the increase in pressure from mainland China”.
“Reunification with Taiwan has been the goal of Chinese presidents ever since the formation of the People’s Republic of China and Xi is determined to achieve this under his leadership,” said McBride.
“But Tsai Ing-wen’s position is that the island’s future will be decided by its people,” he said.
“In her speech, she also spoke about Hong Kong’s experience, which in recent months has seen the erosion of certain rights and freedoms under the implementation of a sweeping new security law. She says that should serve as a warning for the people of Taiwan,” he added.