China pursues 'reunification' with Taiwan

China's President Xi Jinping has vowed to pursue "reunification" with Taiwan just days after sending a record number of warplanes into the island's air defence zone as part of a long-running campaign to pressure Taipei to accept Chinese rule.

Beijing claims sovereignty over the island democracy. Taiwan operates like any other independent country, with its own government and military, and using its formal name: the Republic of China.

Speaking in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing yesterday to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the 1911 revolution that ended the country's last imperial dynasty, Xi warned against efforts to seek independence as well as foreign interference.

"Those who forget their heritage, betray their motherland and seek to split the country will come to no good," he said.

"No one should underestimate the Chinese people's staunch determination, firm will and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity."

He made no reference to the will of Taiwan's population of 23.5 million, where government surveys show less than 10 per cent of residents favour unification with China.

Xi underscored that peaceful unification would best serve the interests of the Chinese nation, in stark contrast to the show of force earlier this week when the People's Liberation Army flew some 150 warplanes, including nuclear-capable bombers, into the buffer zone next to Taiwan's sovereign airspace.

The Chinese Air Force mounted four straight days of incursions, opting to start on the symbolic date of October 1, China's national day, to signal its preparation for a possible future attack.

China's President Xi Jinping. Photo / Getty Images

Taiwan will mark its own national day today, when Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwanese president, will respond to China's threats in a speech to the nation. The island's government has repeatedly accused Beijing of "harassment", while Tsai has stressed its democracy is "non-negotiable".

Today's celebrations include a parade to showcase Taiwan's defence capabilities, featuring major missile systems and a fly-by of 12 types of military aircraft, including F-16Vs and Mirage-2000s. Two CH-47 Chinook helicopters will fly an 18m by 12m national flag over the presidential office.

Taiwan recently pledged an extra $12.3 billion defence budget increase over the next five years, to purchase mainly naval weapons, including missiles and warships, to respond to growing Chinese belligerence.

On Wednesday, Chiu Kuo-cheng, the island's defence chief, warned that China will be capable of mounting a "full scale" invasion of Taiwan by 2025, describing military tensions as being at their worst in more than 40 years.

His assessment raised alarm in global capitals, but little panic among the Taiwanese public, who have grown accustomed to intimidation from across the Taiwan Strait.

On the banks of the Keelung River yesterday, next to the ministry of national defence, jubilant crowds gathered to cheer on teams of paddlers in brightly painted boats as they battled against the wind and each other in the annual Dragon Boat competition, based on an ancient Chinese tradition.

As athletes limbered up for the gruelling race, talk among spectators was more focused on celebrity gossip than war.

Members of the 50-strong "Kiwanis International" team - representing a children's charity - were in good spirits and dismissive of recent Chinese sabre-rattling.

"We are not scared, because they come all the time and we are used to it," said Wang De Hou. "China wants Taiwan's economy, they don't want a destroyed land." While the governments in both Beijing and Taipei trace their origins to the 1911 revolution that ushered in a new Republic of China (ROC), the Communist Party never captured Taiwan in a subsequent civil war.

In the late 1940s, Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Nationalist Kuomintang, retreated from communist forces to Taiwan with an estimated 1.2 million military personnel and civilians, relocating the seat of the ROC to Taipei and imposing martial law.

This was lifted in 1987 and Taiwan is now a thriving democracy with a strong sense of identity. In an August poll by the Taiwan New Constitution Foundation, nearly 90 per cent identified as Taiwanese and about two-thirds said they were willing to fight in case of war.

Wang Naiyi, 38, who trained the Kiwanis dragon boat team, said Taiwan wanted peace and friendly relations with China. "We don't like war," he said.

But he added: "I hope we can tell the world we are Taiwan, we are the Taiwanese people... A long time ago we came from China, but then we stayed here with our abilities and power and we made a new country. We depend on ourselves."

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