China’s Xi vows peaceful ‘unification’ with Taiwan, days after sending a surge of warplanes near the island
China’s President Xi Jinping on Saturday vowed to achieve “peaceful unification” with Taiwan, just days after a record number of Chinese military jets conducted drills close to the island, escalating tensions between the two sides.
“Compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should stand on the right side of history and join hands to achieve China’s complete unification,” Xi said.
“The historic mission of achieving the complete unification of our country must be realized, and can be realized,” he added, speaking at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People during an event to commemorate 110 years since a revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty in 1911.
Nearly 150 warplanes were flown into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone over the past week — prompting Taiwan’s defense minister to say on Wednesday that military tensions with Beijing were at their worst point in more than four decades. Over the last few years, China’s air force has repeatedly sent planes deeper into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, occasionally crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait, an unofficial maritime border.
In Saturday’s speech, Xi did not mention the military drills. Instead, he said “achieving unification through peaceful means is most in line with the overall interests of Chinese people, including Taiwan compatriots.” However, he also warned that “those who forget their heritage, betray their country, and seek to break up their country, will come to no good end.”
Xi’s tone took a more conciliatory approach than that of a speech he made in July, when he vowed to “smash” any attempts at Taiwan independence.
China claims the island of some 24 million people as part of its own sovereign territory, and has previously threatened to take control by force if Taiwan formally declares independence. However Taiwan, which has its own elected government and constitution, has maintained that it will defend its democracy and independence.
President Xi has previously spoken of the “inevitability” of Taiwan’s return and has said that the issue cannot be passed from generation to generation forever.
In response to Xi’s speech, Taiwan’s presidential office underscored the territory’s sovereignty, saying that its future “rests in the hands of Taiwan’s people.” It added that Taiwan’s people had clearly chosen to reject China’s offer of unification under a “one country, two systems” arrangement similar to that used in Hong Kong, and instead supported “defending our democratic way of life.”
While China’s recent military exercises have raised tensions, defense analysts have noted that the jets had stopped short of Taiwan’s airspace and the display of strength may instead primarily be a way for China to boost nationalism at home.
Beijing’s increasing pressure on Taipei, nonetheless, places the United States in a delicate situation.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden told reporters outside the White House that he had spoken with Xi about Taiwan and agreed to “abide by the Taiwan agreement.” Since the establishment of diplomatic ties with China in 1979, the United States has “acknowledged” — but not recognized — China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, while maintaining unofficial relations and military support with Taipei under the Taiwan Relations Act. The position has been built on the expectation that Taiwan’s future will not be decided by force.
U.S.-China relations have soured in recent years, over issues including the coronavirus pandemic, a crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong, the treatment of China’s Muslim Uyghur population and tensions in the South China Sea.
On Wednesday, the two superpowers announced that Biden and Xi would hold a virtual summit before the end of the year. China’s state broadcaster described the outcome as an agreement to get relations back on track.
The Washington Post’s Helier Cheung contributed to this report.