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Taiwan will not bow to pressure from China and will defend its democratic way of life, President Tsai Ing-wen has said in a defiant speech amid heightened tensions over the island.
Her remarks on Taiwan’s National Day came after China’s President Xi Jinping vowed to “fulfil reunification”.
China denounced Ms Tsai’s speech, saying it “incited confrontation”.
Taiwan considers itself a sovereign state, while China views it as a breakaway province.
Beijing has not ruled out the possible use of force to achieve unification.
China has sent a record number of military jets into Taiwan’s air defence zone in recent days. Three Chinese planes, including two fighter jets, crossed into the zone on Sunday, Taiwan’s defense ministry said.
- EXPLAINER: What’s behind the China-Taiwan divide?
Ms Tsai was re-elected by a landslide last year on a promise to stand up to Beijing. In her speech on Sunday, she said Taiwan was “standing on democracy’s first line of defence”.
She said the island would not “act rashly” but would bolster its defences to “ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us”.
That path, she said, offered “neither a free and democratic way of life for Taiwan nor sovereignty” for its 23 million people.
“The more we achieve, the greater the pressure we face from China,” she said.
She added that China’s military flights into Taiwan’s air defence zone had seriously affected national security and aviation safety, and described the situation as being “more complex and fluid than at any other point in the past 72 years”.
Ms Tsai also repeated an offer to talk with Chinese leaders on an equal footing, a suggestion Beijing – which brands her a “separatist” – has so far rejected.
Her speech was followed by a flypast of Taiwanese fighter jets.
One man watching Ms Tsai’s speech told AFP news agency Taiwanese people could not accept unification with China.
“China is presently rather authoritarian. Especially under Xi Jinping, its gotten worse. Reunification is not appropriate now,” another said.
China and Taiwan: The basics
- Why do China and Taiwan have poor relations? China and Taiwan were divided during a civil war in the 1940s, but Beijing insists the island will be reclaimed at some point, by force if necessary
- How is Taiwan governed? The island has its own constitution, democratically elected leaders and about 300,000 active troops in its armed forces
- Who recognises Taiwan? Only a few countries recognise Taiwan. Most recognise the Chinese government in Beijing instead. The US has no official ties with Taiwan but does have a law which requires it to provide the island with the means to defend itself
On Saturday, China’s President Xi said unification should be achieved peacefully, but warned that the Chinese people had a “glorious tradition” of opposing separatism.
“The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland… will definitely be fulfilled,” he added.
Following Ms Tsai’s speech on Sunday, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said she had “advocated Taiwan independence, incited confrontation, cut apart history and disputed facts”.
Despite the recent heightened tensions, relations between China and Taiwan have not deteriorated to levels last seen in 1996 when China tried to disrupt presidential elections with missile tests and the US dispatched aircraft carriers to the region to dissuade them.
The US has a longstanding “One China” policy under which it recognises China rather than Taiwan.
But this agreement also allows Washington to maintain a “robust unofficial” relationship with Taiwan. The US sells arms to Taiwan as part of Washington’s Taiwan Relations Act, which states that the US must help Taiwan defend itself.
In an interview with the BBC this week, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the US would “stand up and speak out” over any actions that might “undermine peace and stability” across the Taiwan Strait.