Tsai Ing-wen pledges to uphold Taiwan-China status quo amid ‘unprecedented challenges’

Foreign Affairs

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and Chinese leader Xi Jinping both gave speeches over the weekend that addressed the future of Taiwan. Xi described “Taiwan independence” as a “grave hidden danger” to his future plans, while Tsai insisted, “nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us.”

tsai ing-wen and xi jinping
Illustration by Derek Zheng

Over the weekend, the leaders of both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China — a.k.a. Taiwan — gave speeches that marked the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, which ended imperial rule and gave birth to modern China.

China’s leader, Xí Jìnpíng 习近平, gave remarks (state media report in English, full text in Chinese) that hewed closely to previous talking points about “national rejuvenation” and how he sees Taiwan’s eventual unification with the mainland as an essential part of that.

  • Xi emphasized, “The historical task of the complete unification of the motherland must and will be realized,” and described “Taiwan independence” as a “grave hidden danger” (严重隐患) to national rejuvenation.
  • However, this is perhaps less harsh rhetoric than his major speech in July when he called unification with Taiwan “an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China” and promised to “take resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward ‘Taiwan independence.’”

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén) made a very different speech yesterday (in English, in Chinese) that painted a picture of a nation at once rising in stature and facing increasing, and unprecedented, existential threats.

  • “In Washington, Tokyo, Canberra, and Brussels, Taiwan is no longer on the margins, with more and more democratic friends willing to stand up for us,” Tsai said, but with “unprecedented challenges,” she warned, “we do not have the privilege of letting down our guard.”
  • “The situation in the Indo-Pacific region is becoming more tense and complex by the day,” Tsai said, citing China’s suppression of freedoms in Hong Kong and challenges to “regional order” in the South and East China Seas.
  • “We call for maintaining the status quo, and we will do our utmost to prevent the status quo from being unilaterally altered,” Tsai stated.
  • Tsai rebuked “the path China has laid out for us” because it “offers neither a free and democratic way of life for Taiwan, nor sovereignty for our 23 million people.”
  • She offered four “bottom line” commitments: To Taiwanese democracy, to cross-Strait dialogue on the basis of parity, against “annexation or encroachment,” and that the future of Taiwan “must be decided in accordance with the will of the Taiwanese people.”

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In response to Tsai’s speech, a spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council in Beijing slammed Tsai (in Chinese) for “inciting confrontation,” claiming that she had “distorted the facts” in an attempt to “kidnap Taiwan public opinion.”

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Correction: This year marks the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, not the 100th anniversary, as a previous version of this article stated.