President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan welcomed American dignitaries on Wednesday in the face of rising tensions with China, saying the self-ruled island needed to protect itself “from new, sophisticated threats coming from across the strait.”
Ms. Tsai made the remarks at a dinner at the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, the law that has guided the United States’ unofficial relationship with the island’s government. The dinner was but the latest round of signaling of Washington’s resolve to stand by Taiwan as tensions mount with Beijing.
In the past two weeks, Washington, Taipei and Beijing have traded words over Chinese jet incursions, Taiwan’s requests for American-made fighter jets, the American military presence in its unofficial embassy in Taipei, and Ms. Tsai’s recent stop in Hawaii.
“We must make sure Taiwan’s economic and security position remains on the right track,” Ms. Tsai told a group largely comprising American business people, emphasizing the need to continue diversifying Taiwan’s economy from reliance on mainland China.
The Communist government in Beijing seeks to assert sovereignty over Taiwan, potentially using military force to do so. The United States considers Taiwan’s political status to be undetermined, while opposing attempts by China to coerce unification.
On March 31, two Chinese J-11 fighter jets crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which separates mainland China and Taiwan, for the first time since 1999. The incursion came days after a United States Navy destroyer and a United States Coast Guard cutter traversed the strait, which, like the South China Sea, is considered to be international waters under international law, but Beijing claims as its territory.
Taiwan jets scrambled and repelled their Chinese counterparts, which came within 115 miles of the island’s coast.
“These actions by China are not only unilateral changes to the cross-strait status quo, even more, they are a brazen provocation to regional security and stability,” Ms. Tsai said in a Facebook post the following day, in her first public comment on the events.
Ms. Tsai warned China against further provocations.
“Our military protects our territory without rest, as president I assure our citizens that I will fight together with our soldiers to the very end,” she wrote. “We will not yield an inch of our territory!”
The last sentence echoed widely publicized exhortations by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, who has threatened Taiwan with war should it formalize its functional independence. The Chinese Communist Party claims Taiwan as its territory, but it has never controlled the island, which is still officially ruled by the Republic of China government overthrown in the mainland in 1949.
The dinner on Wednesday was stocked with American business officials, many of whom have expressed concerns about saber rattling from Beijing. David Meale, the deputy assistant secretary of state for trade policy and negotiations, who was the event’s special guest, pledged that “the United States will remain steadfast in all of its commitments to Taiwan.”
Washington broke ties with Taiwan’s government in 1979 as a prerequisite for establishing formal relations with the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. Months later, President Jimmy Carter signed the Taiwan Relations Act, which calls for Taiwan’s status to be determined by peaceful means, and for the United States to provide the means for Taiwan to defend itself.
In late February, Taiwan asked to buy 66 F-16V fighter jets from the United States. If approved it would be the first aircraft sale since 1992 and a major reversal of the trend under previous administrations, which avoided large arms deals to Taiwan out of fear of angering China.
Chen Chung-chi, a spokesman for Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense, said the government hoped that Washington would approve the latest request, which was solely for defensive purposes in the face of a growing threat from China, which he described as a “troublemaker.”
Zhu Songling, the director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at Beijing Union University, said that aside from arms sales, some members of Congress were pushing the government toward an increasingly official relationship. One such bill, the Taiwan Travel Act, signed into law by President Trump, encourages official exchanges up to the highest level, which would include presidential visits.
China has used economic enticements to convince Taiwan’s allies to drop recognition of Taipei in favor of Beijing. The Trump administration is wary of China gaining more footholds in the South Pacific, which the United States military views as strategically vital in the event of active warfare with China.
While Washington does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the American Institute of Taiwan serves its interests on the island. The group is preparing to move into a $250 million heavily fortified compound that was recently built in Taipei.
Legally a nonprofit organization headquartered in Virginia and staffed by State Department employees on leave, the institute drew Chinese criticism this month after its spokeswoman, Amanda Mansour, told Taiwan media that active-duty American personnel from all four military branches had been stationed on the island since 2005.
For years, the institute had sidestepped the question of whether it housed American military staff, and Ms. Mansour’s statement raised the question whether it was a message to an increasingly aggressive China. The personnel will move into the new compound when it formally begins operations on May 6, she said.
Several American senators made recorded video statements that were shown at the dinner in Taipei on Wednesday, offering American support for Taiwan in the face of Chinese pressure. The lawmakers included Marco Rubio of Florida, Pat Roberts of Kansas and Cory Gardner of Colorado — all Republicans — as well as Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Democrat.
“The United States must continue to stand by Taiwan and encourage our democratic allies and partners around the world to maintain official relations with Taipei,” Mr. Rubio said, “regardless of any pressure or coercion coming from Beijing.”
By Chris Horton
The New York Times