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Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province, is the most tense issue between Beijing and the U.S. Taiwan argues it is on the frontline of democracy against Chinese authoritarianism and is increasingly facing military harassment. Nick Schifrin speaks to Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, about the issue, and the role the U.S. can play in mediating conflict in the region.
Taiwan is the issue creating the most tension right now between Beijing and the U.S.
China considers Taiwan a breakaway province. Taiwan argues that it serves as the front line of democracy against Chinese authoritarianism, and is increasingly facing military harassment.
Nick Schifrin speaks to Taiwan's foreign minister and sets the scene.
In Taiwan, authorities fear drills are becoming reality.
Taiwanese pilots scramble American-made fighter jets to practice responding to Chinese military incursions. Taiwanese soldiers practice defending their island from a would-be Chinese invasion. Taiwan believes Beijing is preparing for war. The Chinese military recently released this video of Chinese drills simulating amphibious assaults.
And, almost every day, Chinese jets cross Taiwan's self-identified Airspace Defense Identification Zone. Never before have so many Chinese planes come so close to Taiwan.
Senior Biden administration officials tell "PBS NewsHour" they do not expect an imminent invasion. But, in March, the outgoing top U.S. military commander in the region predicted war was coming.
I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, during the next six years.
The Trump administration increased arms sales to Taiwan. The Biden administration continued expanded U.S. Naval operations, and became the first administration to invite Taiwan's envoy to inauguration.
I spoke to Taiwan's foreign minister, Joseph Wu, from Taipei, and asked him what he believed were Beijing's intentions.
I think Beijing has been preparing for war against Taiwan, and that is what we have been seeing. They are preparing for it.
If you look at the number of sorties, it's around 2,900 times last year. So, the threat has been increasing. And when we examine in a closer way, the Chinese sometimes even cross the middle line of the Taiwan Strait.
And, you know, the middle of the Taiwan Strait has been safeguarding peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait for decades. I think they are also trying to cut off Taiwan from the international society. For example, they are trying to squeeze us out from the international organizations. They prevent us from entering into the World Health Organization. They are preventing us from getting international recognition.
They are forcing other countries not to have official contact with us. And, moreover, Chinese are also engaging in cognitive warfare. They use cyberattack, disinformation, and something similar to disrupt the democratic process here in Taiwan, to create a conflict in between the government and the society, or to create a distrust in between Taiwan and our major ally, which is the United States.
Focusing on the military threat for a minute, if you believe that Beijing is preparing for war and getting better, presumably, at pointing at Taiwan by conducting these missions, these exercises, in some ways, is Taiwan getting better at defending itself, at doing the things it would need to do if those exercises actually become the real thing?
Yes, we are getting better.
But, at the same time, we also understand the kinds of gap of defense capabilities that we have with China. And, therefore, we are assessing the kinds of situation that we need to be in and trying to prepare ourselves for it.
We understand our own responsibility as a front-line state guarding against the expansion of authoritarianism.
The U.S. is increasing its arms sales to Taiwan, but it is restricted by agreements decades-old of what it can sell to Taiwan.
Do you believe the U.S. is giving you enough to defend yourselves?
If you look at the track record of the last few years, the last two or three years, we have been able to get what we need for Taiwan to be able to defend itself.
Are you satisfied with the commitment that the U.S. has made to defend Taiwan, or do you prefer a less ambiguous commitment and a more specific commitment to defend Taiwan if attacked from Beijing?
The full picture is that we are seeing the United States getting more and more serious about the situation in this part of the world.
You know, beginning from last year, the United States has been patrolling or going through the Taiwan Strait with its naval vessels once — at least once a month. And that is a very strong determination of the United States to show its presence.
And the United States is not only sending a fleet to the region. The United States is also sending military aircrafts into the region. And I think the level of engagement between Taiwan and the United States on military terms, or defensive issues, has been increasing to a level that we haven't seen before.
We need the U.S. support. And the U.S. has shown its support to Taiwan. And I think this is much better than getting into the debate or of strategic ambiguity or strategic clarity.
Is it possible, do you think, that, instead of preparing for war, some China experts here tell us that, instead, Beijing simply wants to deter independence, that they are actually sending a political message more than a military one?
That might be possible that they have that kind of thinking.
But if you look at the situation here in Taiwan, we are by ourselves. We are not administered by China. We just had repeated and periodical national elections. And we have been said by the international society as a success story of democracy.
So, Taiwan is by itself. And, therefore, pointing to Taiwan that Taiwan is seeking independence, it's just like creating a scapegoat and or finding an excuse to attack Taiwan. What we are really concerned, if China is seeing some domestic difficulties, they might follow the classic wisdom of an authoritarian regime. They will find a scapegoat somewhere outside to divert the domestic attention.
And we are very concerned that Taiwan may be that very convenient scapegoat for China's own failure domestically.
The Biden administration has released new guidelines on meetings between American and Taiwanese officials.
The administration says it has eased previous restrictions. Have restrictions actually been eased?
Yes, indeed. The restrictions have been eased.
And we are seeing the kinds of contacts that we haven't seen before. And it's not only the ease of all the contact restrictions. The Biden administration has also been sending all kinds of goodwill gestures to Taiwan, like reassuring Taiwan that the relations have been rock-solid, providing Taiwan with necessary oral support, and also lining up the like-minded countries, like Japan, Australia and G7 countries and now Korea, to address the concern about the peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
So, all these are being appreciated.
What do you say to critics of that announced change, that it goes against some of those decades of agreements that the U.S. has had with Beijing, and, by coming closer to Taiwan, by having those meetings, it could actually increase the chances of the war with Beijing that we were talking about at the beginning?
There have been some senior official contacts in between the two sides, except that we kept it very quiet.
And as far as we see it, the Chinese are not increasing its military operations around Taiwan because of that kind of ease-off of the contact guidelines. On the other hand, we see the Chinese seem to be preparing for war against Taiwan, based on its own merit.
Whenever it feels that it would send its bombers to fly close to Taiwan to scare the Taiwanese people, and when we are in a weak point, like the pandemic, we are in, the Chinese with the sudden increase this disinformation campaign against Taiwan.
Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, thank you very much.
Thank you, Nick.
I hope I have a chance to welcome you in Taiwan in person.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
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