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Taiwan says threat of military clash with China is ‘on the rise’

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu speaks during a news briefing in Taipei, Taiwan, on July 22, 2020. (Ritchie B. Tongo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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TAIPEI, Taiwan — The prospect of a military clash in the Taiwan Strait is rising precariously, the Taiwanese foreign minister warned Wednesday, urging "extreme caution" in the island's dealings with a Chinese leadership in Beijing that he described as both increasingly emboldened and insecure.

The Chinese military has held a growing number of exercises that simulate an invasion of Taiwan, a self-ruled island about 80 miles off China’s east coast that considers the United States its main military and diplomatic backer. The pace and scale of China’s drills, as well as those of U.S. naval and air forces deployed to the region, have risen in recent months as relations between Beijing and Washington plummet on numerous fronts.

Relations took another sharp turn Wednesday after the State Department said it ordered China to close its consulate in Houston.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said this week the United States would sell more arms to Taiwan as part of a $10 billion deal approved by Congress. He also said the U.S. military would reposition forces across Asia to prepare for a confrontation with China in flash points including self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its territory and has vowed for decades to take by force if necessary. Inside China, the government has faced growing calls from hawkish military pundits and nationalist commentators to grasp the current strategic window to seize Taiwan, an accomplishment that could rally the Chinese population and burnish leader Xi Jinping’s political legacy.

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said Wednesday he was worried China has conducted an “unprecedented” number of sea and air drills around Taiwan in 2020, with the pace rising to nearly once every day since June. “The threat is on the rise,” he said.

Wu speculated that tensions in the Taiwan Strait — one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world — could continue to deteriorate as China grapples with a steep economic slowdown, the lingering fallout from covid-19 and devastating flooding across the Chinese heartland.

In recent months, Wu said, China has tangled in quick succession with neighbors in the South China Sea, with India over border territory and with Western countries over Hong Kong, where the Chinese government passed a national security law that effectively cemented Communist Party control over the city’s police and courts.

“A country will often use an exterior crisis to change the domestic focus,” Wu told reporters Wednesday. “If we look at the contested issues around China’s periphery, we see that for China, Taiwan would be an extremely convenient sacrificial lamb.”

At the same time, Wu said, Taiwan should not provoke China through moves such as overly publicizing its support for Hong Kong protesters. “We need to be extremely cautious,” he said. “Other than having full military preparedness, we need to also be very careful to avoid letting Taiwan become an excuse for China to declare war or engage militarily.”

Although most analysts see a full-blown war between China and the United States as unlikely, Wu’s comments added to the sense of unease in Asia, where a number of countries, most recently India, have complained about China’s regional assertiveness and warned about the possibility of serious military clashes. A group of former senior Taiwanese officials said in a report this week that while they did not believe Beijing was edging toward an all-out invasion, Chinese forces could launch an operation to seize one of Taiwan’s outlying islands.

China, for its part, has accused the United States of stoking tensions by ramping up military activity in China’s strategic backyard and building a coalition of countries in a Cold War-style effort to contain its rise. The U.S. Navy this month deployed two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea, days before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared China’s claims in the sea — which cover about 90 percent of the strategic waterway — to be “unlawful.”

Beijing has also lashed out angrily at Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, whom it accused of refusing to acknowledge a 1992 diplomatic formulation that accepted Taiwan and the Chinese mainland as part of “one China.”

In a major speech in January 2019, Xi offered an ultimatum to Taiwan to come to the table for unification talks or face annexation by force. But as a precondition for talks, China demanded that Tsai acknowledge the “one China” principle.

Wu on Wednesday dismissed the likelihood of the Taiwanese administration entering a negotiation, saying it was “absolutely not going to go anywhere.”

“If China demands that Taiwan accept the precondition that Taiwan is part of China, then what’s the point of negotiation if the conclusion is already reached?” he said. “To talk about the prospects of dialogue I think is just hypothetical.”

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