Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has stressed the need for â€œlike-minded democraciesâ€ such as the United States to help safeguard the islandâ€™s security as she urged Beijing to recognise Taiwan as a self-governed democracy.
In a virtual address to the Washington-based Hudson Institute on Wednesday, Tsai said the top priority for her second term was to bolster the islandâ€™s military defences, including seeking a â€œconstructive security relationshipâ€ with the US.
â€œOur 23 million people have the right to determine our own futures, which is [the] antithesis to the position Beijing has taken,â€ she said. â€œUpholding these principles requires us to be able to defend Taiwan against coercive actions. It entails backing up words with actions.â€
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Tsaiâ€™s cabinet on Wednesday proposed a more than 10 per cent increase in Taiwanâ€™s defence budget for next year to NT$453.4 billion (US$15.4 billion). The proposal, which requires legislative approval, would increase defence spending to 2.4 per cent of the islandâ€™s GDP.
Tsai did leave the door open for Taipei and Beijing to work to improve cross-strait relations, acknowledging the islandâ€™s strong cultural and historical ties with mainland China.
â€œWe will never stop believing that there can be a better future ahead where both sides can share in each otherâ€™s successes and accomplishments,â€ Tsai said.
But she also said â€œboth sides should not deny each otherâ€™s existenceâ€ and that Beijing needed to accept the reality that Taiwan was a developed democracy.
The speech came on the heels of US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azarâ€™s visit to Taiwan this week, the highest-level US trip to the island in decades.
The visit was a moment for Taiwan and the US to reaffirm their strengthening relationship publicly. Tsai expressed gratitude for Washingtonâ€™s willingness to â€œforge greater consensus on ways we can preserve peace across the Taiwan Straitâ€.
Beijing strongly objected to Azarâ€™s visit and deployed fighter jets after his arrival that briefly crossed the midline of the Taiwan Strait, the unofficial airspace boundary between mainland China and Taiwan.
Beijing does not govern Taiwan but it claims the island as its sovereign territory that must eventually be brought under Beijingâ€™s rule, by force if necessary.
Taiwan in recent years has bolstered ties with the US as cross-strait relations have frozen over Beijingâ€™s unwillingness to engage with Tsaiâ€™s independence-leaning administration.
Relations between Beijing and Washington have also plunged to their lowest level in decades over tensions on trade, technology, the South China Sea, as well as Beijingâ€™s actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan.
Tsai on Wednesday warned of increasing challenges to freedoms in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, where Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law after protests last year.
â€œWe are the only two Chinese-speaking societies around the world that commemorate June the fourth and its profound significance for freedom and democracy,â€ she said, referring Beijingâ€™s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
â€œThe measures that have taken place against Hong Kong further exemplify how Taiwan is on the front lines of freedom and democracy.â€
Tsai said Taiwan would work with the US to engage other democratic countries, such as those in Europe, to raise awareness about the â€œchallenges posed by authoritarian actorsâ€.
Specifically, she asked for increased Taiwanese participation in international institutions. The islandâ€™s success at containing the coronavirus, coupled with its inability to take part in the World Health Organization because of concerns from Beijing, has become a controversial sticking point during the global Covid-19 pandemic.
At the Hudson event, Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwanâ€™s new representative to the US, also said Taiwan was working with the US to acquire military hardware, including underwater sea mines and cruise missiles for coastal defence.
Taiwanese officials used the term â€œasymmetric capabilitiesâ€ during the speeches, which Hsiao said referred to a military that â€œis cost effective, but lethal enough to become deterrence, to make any consideration of an invasion very painfulâ€.
â€œWe believe that our democracy is under threat, not only by hard military force of the [People’s Republic of China], weâ€™re also under constant threat by a hybrid set of influence operations in Taiwan, aimed at isolating Taiwan, discrediting our political system and sowing international conflict and internal tensions,â€ she said.
Tsai also indicated that Taiwan was expecting to work closely with the US to sign a free-trade agreement.