SINGAPORE — China will not shy away from war if Taiwan takes a decisive step toward independence, and it does not trust claims by the United States that it is opposing that course for the island, China’s defense minister warned on Sunday, a day later Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III accused Beijing of increasing belligerent activity near Taiwan.
Defense Secretary Gen. Wei Fenghe spoke on the final day of the Shangri-La Dialogue, a regional security forum in Singapore, which Mr. Austin also attended. In their exchanges over the weekend, the two men detailed tensions between Beijing and Washington over disputes across Asia, particularly over Taiwan.
Speaking to diplomats, defense officials and security experts at a five-star hotel, General Wei said China is sincerely doing everything in its power to bring about a peaceful union with Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing regards as its own. But, he said, “no one should ever underestimate the determination and ability of the Chinese armed forces” to defend their claims to sovereignty.
“For the sake of unification, the United States waged the war between North and South,” General Wei said. “China is very reluctant to endure such a civil war, but will resolutely crush all plans for Taiwan’s independence. If anyone dares secede Taiwan, we will not hesitate to fight, will not shrink from the cost and will fight to the end.”
China has long said it would take Taiwan by force if necessary, and General Wei’s comments left much uncertainty about what Xi Jinping and other leaders in Beijing would see as the emerging event warranting this. But comments by Gen. Wei, Mr. Austin and others at the Singapore meeting underscored that Taiwan remains the hottest bone of contention between China and the United States and its allies.
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Officials and pundits are divided over how imminent a military clash around Taiwan could be. But most believe the danger increases as the People’s Liberation Army gets closer to gathering the equipment and skills needed to make invasion a plausible, if daunting and deeply costly, option.
“You hear more concerns about Taiwan, more people saying that conflict isn’t a question of if it’s a question of when,” said Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat who is now a researcher at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, in an interview in Singapore. “We are entering more dangerous waters. But for China, the ability to launch a full-scale invasion would only be part of the equation. How do you occupy an island with 24 million people?”
Gen. Wei and Mr. Austin on Friday held talks on regional issues and the war in Ukraine, as well as efforts to strengthen communications between the US and Chinese militaries and avoid dangerous military miscalculations.
Mr Austin told the forum on Saturday that China was involved in “provocative and destabilizing” military activities near Taiwan. He also said the Biden administration does not support Taiwan independence and remains committed to the “one China” principle, which recognizes — but does not endorse — Beijing’s position on Taiwan.
On Sunday, Gen. Wei, without naming the United States, indicated that the Chinese leadership does not believe such assurances.
“A certain country has violated the principle and commitments of ‘One China’ on the Taiwan issue,” Gen. Wei said in his speech. “Taiwan independence is a dead end, a sham. Relying on the support of foreigners will not succeed. Forget it.”
The United States has continued to sell arms to the island since 1979, when it severed formal ties with Taiwan and granted diplomatic recognition to China. The US law also requires Washington to stand ready to “oppose any use of force” against Taiwan, leaving open the possibility that the US military could intervene should China attempt to invade.
Mr Austin said in Singapore the United States has an obligation to “maintain our own ability to resist any use of force or other forms of coercion” that may endanger Taiwan.
Chinese politicians have accused the Biden administration, and previously the administration of President Donald J. Trump, of steadily increasing their political and military support for Taiwan.
Beijing expressed particular disdain for Tsai Ing-wen, the current president of Taiwan, who dismissed China’s preconditions for talks on the island’s future. Taiwan’s next presidential election in 2024 could create another flashpoint. A growing number of people in Taiwan reject the idea that they are culturally and historically part of China, and an overwhelming majority say they do not accept Beijing’s framework for unification.
“We will defend our hard-won democracy,” according to the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Saturday, in response to an earlier remark by General Wei that the People’s Liberation Army would “crush” any push for Taiwanese independence. “History shows that appeasement only invites aggression,” the ministry said.
In his speech on Saturday, Mr. Austin blamed China for the current tensions over Taiwan, citing “an alarming increase in the number of unsafe airstrikes and confrontations at sea” by PLA planes and ships. “The stakes are particularly high in the Taiwan Straits,” Mr. Austin said.
Richard Marles, Australia’s defense minister, told the Singapore forum that China should give more assurances about its military buildup. “Quieting statesmanship will be fundamental to cross-strait peace and stability,” he said.
Gen Wei said it was “a historic and strategic mistake” for Washington to treat China as an adversary. He called on the United States to “stop attacking and slandering China” and “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.” If this is not the case, relations will not improve, General Wei added.
“If you want a confrontation,” he said, “we’ll fight to the end.”
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