TAIPEI, Taiwan — The world must prepare for the prospect that the Chinese militarily could invade Taiwan as soon as next year, the island democracy’s foreign minister warned Thursday, saying Taiwan’s people and defense forces are drawing inspiration from Ukraine’s fight against Russia as they confront the idea of an attack by its massive neighbor across the Taiwan Strait.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has warned since 2019 that Beijing could use force to dissolve Taiwan’s democracy and absorb it under Communist Party rule. The recent spike in military drills, coupled with China’s ambivalence over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has increased concern in Taipei that Chinese Communist Party leaders are preparing for war, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said.
He stressed that China’s expansion of military drills and missile tests near Taiwan after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island last month were clear signals that Beijing was practicing for a “future invasion.”
“Putting it very simply, they talk about it and they practice for it and therefore the threat for Taiwan is real, and we sense it and we understand the urgency. Therefore, we also try to prepare for the worst possible day to come,” Mr. Wu said.
Mr. Xi has talked of preferring a “peaceful” reunification but is under growing pressure from nationalists in his party to seize a window of opportunity amid fears in Beijing that the U.S. is stepping up military and diplomatic support for an independent Taiwan.
“It’s going to be very hard to guess when that will happen, whether it’s 2023 or 2025, 2027 or 2035,” the Taiwanese foreign minister said. “Every guess has its own merit, but the government here in Taiwan does not have that kind of luxury to guess when [the Chinese] will attack Taiwan.
“What we need to do is to make ourselves fully prepared so that whenever China thinks the conditions are right for them to attack against Taiwan, we are prepared and we are able to defend ourselves,” he told journalists from international news outlets, including The Washington Times, visiting the island democracy through a program sponsored by the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Beijing’s increasingly provocative military moves against Taiwan have heightened tensions between the U.S. and China. The Biden administration has recently sent U.S. warships through the 110-mile-wide Taiwan Strait between China and Taiwan in a show of support for the island democracy.
Washington has long acknowledged Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China, even though the U.S. maintains informal diplomatic relations and substantial defense ties with the island democracy and does not technically recognize Chinese sovereignty over it.
Taiwan and the U.S. have close economic ties. American companies are heavily tied to Taiwan’s status as the world’s leading manufacturer of semiconductor chips, which are vital to the global production of smartphones, laptop computers, cars and refrigerators.
A State Department fact sheet circulated in May underscored the importance of Taiwan’s semiconductor industry. Still, the fact sheet said U.S. officials “do not support Taiwan independence” but “expect cross-Strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means.” It said U.S. officials “oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side.”
The Biden administration’s approach has drawn criticism. Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called for official recognition of Taiwan’s independence. During a visit to Taipei this week, Mr. Pompeo accused Mr. Biden of making “muddled and confusing statements” about Washington’s policy on Taiwan.
“Concerning America’s true commitment to Taiwan, the ambiguity that had been American policy has now become even more ambiguous,” the former secretary of state said Tuesday, according to Agence France-Presse. “This concerns me greatly.”
China, meanwhile, says the Biden administration has forced Beijing to respond to escalating regional tensions and encouraged pro-independence forces in Taiwan. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned last week after a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly that the U.S. has been sending “very wrong, dangerous signals” about Taiwan and that Taipei’s assertions of independence from China increase the likelihood of confrontation.
China has “conducted more and more military exercises around Taiwan, in the air or on the surface, or engaged in hybrid warfare, including a disinformation campaign and cyberattacks,” he said. Chinese cyberattacks briefly took down the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website on at least two occasions, he said.
Although Taiwan and China maintain robust trade relations, Beijing is engaging in “economic coercion.” Beijing banned more than 100 Taiwanese companies from exporting to China after Mrs. Pelosi visited Taiwan. It was one of a number of congressional and U.S. trade missions visiting Taipei this year.
Asked about U.S. policy toward Taiwan, Mr. Wu said Taipei has confidence in continued U.S. support and appreciates debates in Washington. At the same time, he said, “if the United States is willing to consider more openness to its relationship with Taiwan — to allow higher-level official exchanges with us — that would be highly welcomed by the Taiwanese government.”
With regard to Mr. Biden’s comments about militarily defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, the foreign minister said “Taiwan has the will to defend itself and it is Taiwan’s responsibility to defend itself.”
“If we are not willing to defend ourselves, we don’t have any right to ask any other countries to sacrifice themselves in helping or defending Taiwan,” he said. “That is the most fundamental policy of our side.”
The Ukraine factor
Mr. Wu said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underscored the reality of the threat facing Taiwan and that the unexpectedly stout response by the Ukrainian military and democracies that have supported Kyiv offer a guide for Taiwan as it prepares for any Chinese attack.
“If you look at the Ukrainian people, their will to defend their freedom, they are truly inspirational to the Taiwanese people,” the foreign minister said.
“In the days before the Russian invasion,” he said, “many people might say that the war launched by China against Taiwan is still quite remote, but when we saw the TV footage of what the Russians did to the Ukrainians, the people here sensed that maybe the war is not that far from us and therefore we’d better be realistic about the possibility of China’s war against Taiwan.”
Some Taiwan-based observers are skeptical of the island’s ability to defend itself.
“The Taiwanese military is woefully unprepared for an invasion by China,” said Wendell Minnick, a longtime Taiwan-based American journalist covering security issues in Asia.
Critics in Washington and Taipei point to the quality of Taiwan’s soldiers compared with the battle-hardened and NATO-trained troops Ukraine can put into the field. As the fear of an imminent Chinese invasion receded in recent years, the mandatory term of military training and service for Taiwanese draftees fell from as long as two years to just four months. Many of the big-ticket items on the Taiwanese Defense Ministry’s shopping list won’t be deployable for years, although many feel Mr. Xi may be speeding up the timetable for military action.
The situation has been made more complex by the nature of China’s military moves and the fact that, unlike Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the People’s Liberation Army faces a much more comprehensive air and naval operation crossing the 110-mile-wide Taiwan Strait in any full-scale assault on Taiwan.
For now, China is engaged in “gray-zone” provocations against Taiwan, including “military pressure below the threshold of a military attack,” said Mr. Wu. Fleets of Chinese fighter planes routinely violate Taiwan’s air defense zone, forcing the island’s air forces to scramble to confront them.
A senior Taiwanese security official told Reuters on background last week that a Chinese blockade of Taiwan or the seizure of an offshore island would be considered an act of war and Taiwan would not surrender.
In the interim, Mr. Wu said, the “gray-zone” provocations are “something that we have been coping with, and this is probably the most difficult part. We see the Chinese airplanes coming, but we are not going to fire the first shot to start a war, and therefore the Chinese know that so they keep coming.”
“They’re coming with larger numbers,” he said. “They’re coming closer, so this is dangerous for us.”
• Guy Taylor can be reached at email@example.com.
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