SINGAPORE — China will not back down from war if Taiwan takes a decisive step toward independence, and it does not trust U.S. claims that it opposes that path for the island, warned Sunday China’s defense minister, a day after Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III accused Beijing of increasingly belligerent activity near Taiwan.
Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe spoke on the final day of the Shangri-La Dialogue, a regional security forum in Singapore that Austin also attended. In their weekend exchanges, the two men played in miniature the tensions between Beijing and Washington over disputes across Asia, including over Taiwan.
In his speech to diplomats, defense officials and security experts at a five-star hotel, General Wei said China is sincerely doing all it can to achieve peaceful unification with Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing considers its own. But, he said, “no one should ever underestimate the determination and capabilities of the Chinese armed forces” to defend its sovereignty claims.
“In the interests of unification, the United States has waged war between the North and the South,” General Wei said. “China is very reluctant to go through a civil war like this, but it will resolutely crush any plans for Taiwan independence. If anyone dares to separate from Taiwan, we will not hesitate to fight, we will not back down. not in front of the price and we will fight until the end.
China has long said it would take Taiwan by force if necessary, and General Wei’s comments left much uncertainty as to what Xi Jinping and other leaders in Beijing would consider a threshold event justifying doing so. . But comments by General Wei, Mr. Austin and others at the Singapore meeting underscored how Taiwan remains the most volatile point of contention between China and the United States and its allies.
Officials and experts disagree on the imminence of a military confrontation in Taiwan. But most believe the danger increases as the People’s Liberation Army gets closer to collecting the equipment and skills needed to make invasion a plausible, albeit daunting and deeply costly, option.
“You hear more concerns about Taiwan, more people say the conflict is not about if, but when,” said Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat who is now a research fellow at the Institute. Lowy from Sydney, in an interview. in Singapore. “We are entering more dangerous waters. But for China, the ability to launch a full-scale invasion would only be part of the equation. How to occupy an island of 24 million inhabitants?
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General Wei and Mr. Austin held talks Friday on regional issues and the war in Ukraine, as well as efforts to strengthen communications between the US and Chinese militaries and avoid dangerous military misjudgments.
Mr Austin told the forum on Saturday that China was engaged in “provocative and destabilizing” military activities near Taiwan. He also said the Biden administration does not support Taiwan independence and remains committed to the “one China” principle, which recognizes – but does not endorse – Beijing’s position on Taiwan.
On Sunday, General Wei said, without naming the United States, that Chinese leaders do not believe in such assurances.
“A certain country has violated the ‘one China’ principle and commitments regarding the Taiwan issue,” General Wei said in his speech. “Taiwan independence is a dead end, an illusion. Relying on the support of outsiders will not succeed. Forget that.”
Since 1979, when it ended official relations with Taiwan and extended diplomatic recognition to China, the United States has continued to sell weapons to the island. US law also requires Washington to be prepared to “resist any use of force” against Taiwan, leaving open the possibility that the US military could intervene should China attempt to invade.
Mr Austin told Singapore that the United States was committed to “maintaining its own ability to resist any use of force or other forms of coercion” that could jeopardize Taiwan.
Chinese policymakers have accused the Biden administration, and the administration of President Donald J. Trump before it, of steadily improving its political and military support for Taiwan.
Beijing has expressed particular contempt for Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s current president, who rejected China’s preconditions for talks on the island’s future. Taiwan’s next presidential election in 2024 could create another flashpoint. A growing number of Taiwanese reject the idea that they are culturally and historically part of China, and an overwhelming majority say they do not accept Beijing’s unification framework.
“We will defend our hard-won democracy,” Taiwan’s foreign ministry said said saturday, responding to an earlier remark by General Wei that the People’s Liberation Army would “crush” any campaign for Taiwanese independence. “History shows that appeasement only invites aggression,” the ministry said.
In his speech on Saturday, Mr Austin blamed China for the current tensions over Taiwan, citing “an alarming increase in the number of dangerous aerial interceptions and clashes at sea” by planes and ships from the People’s Liberation Army. “The stakes are particularly high in the Taiwan Strait,” Austin said.
After his speech on Sunday, General Wei appeared to take a more conciliatory approach as he met with Richard Marles, the defense minister of Australia, a US ally whose relationship with China has been rocky. Marles told reporters that his talks with General Wei, the first ministerial-level meeting between the countries in more than two years, lasted more than an hour.
“It was a crucial first step,” Mr. Marles said. “We do not underestimate the difficulties we have encountered in our bilateral relations.”
General Wei said in his speech that it was “a historical and strategic mistake” for Washington to treat China as an adversary. He called on the United States to “stop attacking and smearing China” and “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs”. Unless he does, the ties won’t improve, he added.
“If you want confrontation”, he said, “we will fight until the end”.
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