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Tsai Ing-wen said coercion from Beijing had worsened since she became president in 2016. Photo: AP

Taiwan ‘at the front line of threats’ from Beijing, Tsai Ing-wen tells US think tanks

  • President says in video link that the United States ‘has played a crucial role’ to help the self-ruled island reject coercion from mainland China
  • Event was held ahead of 40th anniversary of Taiwan Relations Act

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Tuesday vowed to strengthen defence, as she sought support from the US and other countries to counter what she called aggression from mainland China.

Speaking during a video conference with three US think tanks in Washington, Tsai said the self-ruled island had faced coercion from Beijing, and it had worsened since she became president in 2016.

“Because of the Taiwan Relations Act, the US has played a crucial role to help [Taiwan] reject coercion,” she said, referring to aggression – including military intimidation and diplomatic isolation – from Beijing since she took office and refused to accept the one-China principle.

Tsai was speaking ahead of the 40th anniversary of the act, which defines US ties with the island in the absence of formal relations.

Unloved but essential: 40 years on, the durable Taiwan Relations Act

“In terms of security, [the act] laid out a framework to not only ‘provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character’ but also ‘to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States’,” she said.

“Cooperation between our two countries has continued to fulfil the spirit of these articles. Already, a steady drumbeat of arms sales have been announced by the current US administration, and we have more in the pipeline.”

She was referring to US President Donald Trump’s approval of US$1.4 billion in arms sales in 2017 that included advanced missiles and torpedoes, followed by a second arms package worth US$330 million last year. In the last few weeks, the US Department of Defence announced two more contracts – a US$9 million deal for supporting Taiwan’s Patriot air defence system, on April 4, and a US$50 million contract as part of a radar restoration program for Taiwan’s navy, on March 26.

Tsai Ing-wen said Beijing was trying to change the status quo and undermine Taiwan’s democratic system. Photo: Reuters

Tsai said Taiwan was not alone in facing threats from the mainland, including the spread of disinformation and fake news, saying democratic countries around the world faced the same problem.

“Taiwan is at the front line of these threats,” she said, adding that there was a need for the US and other like-minded countries to fend off such threats.

“As we speak, forces working against freedom and democracy are becoming more active around the world. For while we measure progress in terms of freedom and individual liberty, the metrics they use are fear and control, both at home and abroad.”

Tsai also said Beijing was attempting to change the status quo and undermine Taiwan’s democratic system. “One thing that we learned from the previous century is that the forward march of democracy is not a given,” she said.

She said Beijing had broken a “tacit agreement” when it sent warplanes across the median line dividing the strait between the island and the Chinese mainland.

“Less than two weeks ago, China’s PLA sent two fighter jets across the median line of the Taiwan Strait, breaking a tacit agreement that has served the interests of peace and stability over the past two decades,” she said.

Stressing the need to increase the defence budget because of the mainland’s increasingly aggressive actions, Tsai said: “We will continue to leverage our industrial capabilities to build new defence articles. That includes submarines, and we just completed the first phase last month.”

As we speak, forces working against freedom and democracy are becoming more active around the world
Tsai Ing-wen

She said she expected the first Taiwanese-built submarine to be operational by 2024. “And for items we can’t build ourselves, we will continue to seek arms sales from the United States, as consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act.”

Tsai said her administration did this not because it wanted confrontation. “Quite the opposite,” she said. “We want to deter aggression by showing we are capable of effectively defending ourselves. This is what it will take to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

She also sought the creation of a free-trade agreement with the US, saying the island had a real capacity to expand economic ties with the US given that the two economies are complementary rather than competitive.

“Taiwan’s economic diversification is related to whether we can remain a free and open society,” she said.

“China’s influence campaigns are undertaken using economic actors. By aligning ourselves with the United States and other free-market actors, we can reduce our economic reliance on China and their capacity to interfere in our media, politics and security.”

She said a trade deal was “particularly relevant” amid worries over Chinese telecoms giant Huawei and “the scramble for control over the future of 5G networks”.

“We need to shape the flow of this supply chain so that critical technologies, infrastructure and assets do not fall into the wrong hands,” she said. The United States has been pressing for countries to avoid Huawei as they build their next-generation networks.

Calling Taiwan a full partner of the Trump’s “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy” – basically to ally countries in the region to counter Beijing’s expansionism – Tsai said the island was “working hand in hand to defend a rule-based region, based on our shared values and interests”.

Last month, Taiwan and the US announced the launch of the Indo-Pacific Democratic Governance Dialogue, which serves as a platform for like-minded countries in the region to pursue joint projects advancing good governance and human rights.

Tsai stressed Taiwan’s cooperation with Japan, which is one of US’ security allies in the Indo-Pacific region, and pointed out the goodwill the Taiwanese feel towards Japan and the fact it is Taiwan’s major trading partner and largest market for outbound tourism.

Two F-16 warplanes at the Hualien airbase, eastern Taiwan in June last year. Photo: Taiwan military news agency handout via EPA-EFE

“I spoke about our cooperation in the Indo-Pacific earlier, but I want to make clear that we don’t limit that to the US. We also share the same vision of the Indo-Pacific with Japan,” she said, adding she sees great potential for working together on enhancing economic prosperity, clean governance and shared regional security.

“We are grateful that very senior Japanese officials have spoken out, quite forcefully, on Taiwan’s participation in international [forums] such as the World Health Assembly,” she said.

Tsai was speaking with representatives of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the Brookings Institution and the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.

Observers said she was using the event, and the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act on Wednesday, to seek support in the United States, including for her re-election bid next year.

Tsai’s first four-year term ends in 2020, and she is under pressure from all angles – from Beijing, the opposition Kuomintang and from members of her own party. After a crushing defeat at the local government elections in November, Tsai stepped down as head of the Democratic Progressive Party.

The independence-leaning DPP lost seven of 13 local government positions it used to hold, retaining just six – the least since 1989. Meanwhile, the KMT won control of 15 cities and counties, including the DPP’s independence stronghold of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Tsai seeks support from US to counter mainland ‘aggression’