Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen said she believes that the United States would help to defend the island in the event of an attack by China, amid confusion about the US administration’s position on military intervention.
Speaking to CNN in an interview aired on Wednesday, Tsai also confirmed for the first time that US troops were stationed on the self-governing island, explaining that Taiwan had a “wide range of cooperation with the US aiming at increasing our defence capability”.
The remarks come days after US President Joe Biden fuelled speculation about Washington’s long held policy of “strategic ambiguity” around the question of military intervention on Taiwan’s behalf, telling a CNN town hall last Thursday that the US would defend the island if China attacked.
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White House officials soon walked back those comments, stressing that Biden had not intended to signal a change in the administration’s Taiwan policy, while insisting that the administration’s support for the island remained ironclad.
The US does not have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but is required by law to aid its efforts to defend itself militarily, including through arms sales.
Different people had interpreted Biden’s remarks in different ways, Tsai told CNN. But as for her own interpretation about whether the administration would defend Taiwan if China attacked, Tsai was unambiguous.
“I do have faith, given the long term relationship that we have with the US; and also the support [from] the people of the US as well as the Congress and the administration has been very helpful,” said Tsai, who was reelected as Taiwan’s leader in a landslide victory last year.
Confirming reports by US media earlier this month, Tsai indicated that US troops were training local forces on the island, but would not comment on the exact number of US military personnel stationed there. The figure was “not as many as people thought,” she said.
Her remarks come as Beijing ramps up its military posturing over Taiwan, having dispatched record numbers of fighter jets into the island’s air defence identification zones in recent weeks. Beijing considers Taiwan an inalienable part of its territory that is to be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary.
The threat from China was “increasing every day”, Tsai told CNN.
During a virtual gathering of East Asian leaders on Wednesday, Biden said that his administration remained “deeply concerned by China’s coercive … actions,” which he said posed a threat to regional peace.
Speaking before leaders including Chinese premier Li Keqiang, Biden said that US commitment to Taiwan was “rock solid and consistent across administrations,” according to a recording of the closed-door remarks obtained by Agence France-Press. “It continues to be the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits and within the region.”
Beijing has charged that Washington’s military support of Taipei is a violation of its sovereignty and emboldens what it considers to be separatist factions in Taiwan.
But Tsai’s administration has not pursued formal independence from China, instead advocating for the status quo, whereby the island continues to govern itself without unilaterally declaring itself a sovereign state independent of China.
In the CNN interview, Tsai expressed interest in direct talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom – unlike her predecessor – she has never met. More communication, she said, “would be helpful” in efforts to reduce misunderstandings and “make arrangements so that we will be able to coexist peacefully.”
Taiwan’s defence minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, said recently that China would have the capabilities to launch a “full-scale” invasion by 2025. That came after warnings earlier this year by a top US commander that the threat of Chinese military action against Taiwan is “manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.”
Tensions between Washington, Beijing and Taipei come amid rising concern in the US administration about China’s growing military prowess, in the wake of reports that the Chinese military recently tested a hypersonic missile system capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Reported by the Financial Times newspaper, the tests came “close to a Sputnik moment” for the US, Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Bloomberg Television in an interview aired Wednesday.
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