Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has made her first open appeal to Chinese leader Xi Jinping for “restraint and responsibility” as the Chinese military flexes its muscles in multiple war-games across the Bohai Sea, Yellow Sea and East and South China Seas.

Tsai made subtle overtures to the mainland while speaking out against perceived as renewed coercion targeting the self-governed island in a recorded address at a webinar on Thursday hosted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra-based think tank. 

“The risks of conflict require careful management by all the parties concerned. We expect and hope that Beijing will continue to exercise restraint, consistent with their obligations as a major regional power,” Tsai said. 

“There continue to be significant concerns over the potential for accidents, given increased military activities in the region. Therefore, we believe it would be important for all parties to maintain open lines of communications to prevent misinterpretations or miscalculations.

“As shown in Mr Xi Jinping’s statement early last year, Beijing’s formulation of One China is in essence ‘one country, two systems’. This is not acceptable to the people of Taiwan, especially in light of the developments we have witnessed in Hong Kong,” she said while vowing to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait during her second term. 

This is believed to be the first time that Tsai has mentioned Xi by name in public. In a legal sense, the two governments are still in a state of war in the absence of an armistice. As for the mainland, Tsai’s name has never cropped up in any public speech by Xi or reports or commentaries by state media such as the People’s Daily. 

Chinese missile frigate Yuncheng launches an anti-ship missile during a military exercise near south China’s Hainan Island and Paracel Islands in a file photo. Image: Xinhua

Tsai’s toned-down rhetoric against China at the Indo-Pacific Leaders Dialogue, the virtual seminar she attended, comes soon after the People’s Liberation Army’s went on a missile-firing spree two days ago. 

The PLA drills saw some of the force’s most formidable intercontinental missiles traverse more than 1,500 kilometers from Zhejiang and Qinghai to zap targets in the western approaches of the South China Sea. 

Photos of glowing fiery tail streaks across the sky, believed to be from the missiles, are circulating widely on China’s social media platforms as PLA members and ordinary Chinese call for a once-and-for-all military solution to what Beijing sees as the Taiwan problem. 

The PLA fired medium- to long-range missiles earlier this week from Zhejiang and Qinghai into the South China Sea. Photo: Weibo

The Taiwanese military was initially accused of a fractured response to the PLA drills and missiles as its radars and analysts reputedly failed to determine the type and trajectory of the projectiles fired from Zhejiang, less than 500 kilometers north of Taipei.

The China Times, a broadsheet affiliated with Taiwan’s Beijing-friendly Kuomintang Party, however, said on Friday that the missiles fired from Zhejiang flew over neighboring Fujian province but did not enter the Taiwan Strait. 

While Taiwan’s army scrambled to put itself on the highest alert during the PLA drills, Tsai reiterated during the webinar’s question and answer session that her government remains open to discussions with China for a “beneficial relationship” based on peace, parity, democracy and dialogue.

“I will continue to take a pragmatic and consistent approach to our cross-strait policy,” Tsai pledged at the meeting, which featured a chorus of disapproval of Beijing’s perceived as “predatory moves” in the region.

“The international community can continue to expect that my overall commitment to cross-strait peace and stability will remain consistent into my second term,” Tsai said.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, meanwhile, noted that Tsai had received daily briefings on the PLA’s activities near the Taiwan proper and the islets it controls in the South China Sea.

Taiwanese Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa (C) listening during a drill at the military base in Taipei, March 2020. Photo: AFP

Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa told the island’s semi-official Central News Agency he believed that the intended audience of the war games was the United States, but admitted that the military had put itself on a wartime footing to monitor the situation and fend off any threat or incursion.

Yen refused to say exactly how Taiwan would respond if Beijing fired strategic anti-ship missiles from Zhejiang and Fujian, stressing there had long been contingency plans in place and he should not comment on hypothetical questions. 

Su Tzu-yun, a professor of geopolitics at Taiwan’s Tamkang University whose brother Alex Huang is Tsai’s spokesman, asserted on his blog that Beijing’s firing of strategic missiles during the drills had backfired. He said the act underlined China threat theory, in which many neighboring countries have become wary of a more aggressive China under Xi. 

“These medium to long-range missiles, believed to be the anti-ship versions of DF-21 and DF-26, can of course hit Taiwanese warships and other naval assets, and the fact that some were fired from Zhejiang can be particularly worrying as this is evident that the PLA has deployed them very close to Taiwan for deterrence,” Su wrote. 

“Tsai’s softer tone at the Australian think tank forum can also be indicative of her administration’s ongoing re-evaluation of the growing disparity between the two militaries, now that the PLA has demonstrated it can wage wars on several fronts across its littoral waters from north to south and in the Taiwan Strait, under the cover of a missile blitz launched from both its coastal and inland provinces like Zhejiang and Qinghai,” he wrote.

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