The rare public acknowledgment, which comes after the Wall Street Journal reported that Marines have been in Taiwan for at least a year, drew an angry response from the Chinese state-backed tabloid Global Times, which accused Tsai of “pushing the mainland to decide to resolve the Taiwan question by force.”
The Chinese Communist Party has claimed Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory since 1949, when the nationalist Kuomintang retreated to the island, about 100 miles from the coast of southeastern Fujian province. Beijing regularly threatens to take the island by force if Taiwan’s democratically elected government declares legal independence.
Beijing’s mistrust of Tsai, whose party historically supported formal independence, has only grown after she won a second term in a landslide victory last year. Tsai maintains that she supports a continuation of the status quo in Taipei’s relationship with Beijing, reflecting her party’s official position since 1999.
But Chinese officials accuse Tsai of supporting “separatists” and take umbrage at her efforts to raise Taiwan’s international status in response to Beijing’s bid to isolate Taipei from multilateral organizations and global diplomacy.
The latest target for Chinese opprobrium is a visit this week by Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu to Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, where he has drawn comparisons between Taiwan’s democratization and the Velvet Revolution of 1989 that ended 40 years of communist rule in Czechoslovakia.
Since Tsai took office, Beijing has barred Taiwan from the World Health Organization general assembly, as well as several other U.N. forums, arguing that the issue of representation was resolved in 1971 when the People’s Republic switched seats with the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name, at the United Nations.
Tsai’s remarks come at an unusually fraught period even for the typically tense relationship between Taipei and Beijing. Over China’s National Day holiday this month, the People’s Liberation Army sent a record number of fighter jets and bombers into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, drawing warnings from the United States.
That same week, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Tsai exchanged dueling speeches laying out their visions for the future of Taiwan. While Xi promised that unification would “definitely be achieved,” Tsai marked Taiwan’s National Day by responding that “nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us.”
In her interview, Tsai framed the question of protecting Taiwan as one of defending democracy. “If we fail, then that means people that believe in these values would doubt whether these are values that they [should] be fighting for,” she told CNN.
By openly emphasizing the strength of Taiwan’s ties with the United States, Tsai hopes to deter Beijing from future military action, said Charles Chong-Han Wu, an associate professor at the National Chengchi University’s department of diplomacy. “It sends a signal that Americans are behind supporting us,” he said. “The president saying it out loud makes it more strategic and credible.”
Wu added that Tsai appeared to be taking advantage of an opportunity to deter Beijing after President Biden last week said that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked. “She wants to tell Beijing: ‘Don’t act rashly. America really will help us,’ ” he said.
Many analysts thought Biden misspoke, because his remarks appeared to be at odds with a policy of “strategic ambiguity” that leaves it unclear whether the United States would intervene in a conflict. The White House later clarified that U.S. policy has not changed. Still, Beijing responded with a warning not to underestimate its resolve, adding that China has “no room for compromise” over Taiwan.
Even without a fundamental shift in the United States’ policy, attention in Washington toward Taiwan’s fate is only likely to grow as China’s influence and military threats escalate, said Freddy Lim, an independent lawmaker in Taiwan’s parliament and singer in heavy metal band Chthonic.
“Twenty years ago, people might have thought that the Taiwan Strait issue was Taiwan’s alone, but now no one thinks that way,” he said. “The international problem faced now is not just military but about the spread of autocracy.”
In the past, when Lim used to go on international tours with his band, no one knew about Taiwan and he would have to explain that Taiwan was “not China, Thailand or Japan.” But recent tensions have drawn a new audience.
Earlier this week, an old clip of Lim swearing at China while onstage in Britain made a brief appearance in a segment about Taiwan on “Last Week Tonight” hosted by comedian John Oliver. Watching the clip, Lim felt a rush. “Ten years later, Taiwan is being taken seriously internationally. It’s a big change,” he said.