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International relations

China's Xi clashes with Taiwan's Tsai over unity call

President draws rebuke from island's leader after 'One China' speech

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the "Message to Compatriots in Taiwan" at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday   © Reuters

HONG KONG/TAIPEI -- The presidents of China and Taiwan ramped up the rhetoric Wednesday over the status of the self-ruled island, marking their positions in separate speeches that underscore escalating tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

China's Xi Jinping used a major address to drive home his desire to unite the mainland with Taiwan, saying any moves toward independence on the self-ruled island would lead to "disaster."

In his speech to mark the 40th anniversary of a statement that established the "One China" principle between both sides of the strait, Xi said unification would be an "inevitable requirement" for the "great rejuvenation of China" in his new era.

In response, Taiwan's Tsai Ing-wen said the island would not accept a "one country, two systems" arrangement with Beijing, and stressed that all cross-strait negotiations needed to be on a government-to-government basis.

Beijing has pressured Tsai to acknowledge the so-called "1992 Consensus," an agreement between semiofficial representatives which stated that both the mainland and Taiwan belong to "One China." Tsai said Wednesday that her administration has never accepted this consensus, adding: "What the leader across the strait said today confirmed our concern."

Tsai said Taipei is willing to sit down and talk to Beijing, but any cross-strait negotiation must be authorized and supervised by Taiwanese people.

While Xi gave no specific timetable for unification in his speech, he appears to be seeking to accelerate the process. During his 30-minute address, the Chinese president listed a set of guidelines calling for a peaceful reunification, but said it would not give up the use of force to solve the issue.

"The Taiwan issue was caused by weakness and chaos, and it will certainly be ended with the rise of our nation," Xi said, adding that "no one can block" it. He also said that should Beijing use arms to bring Taiwan back, the target would be "external forces" and a very few "extreme separatists" -- not the people in Taiwan.

The highly charged address comes as Beijing contends with both a slowing economy and a trade war with Washington -- both of which Xi has to manage to keep his citizens happy.

While Wednesday's rhetoric is little changed from Beijing's previous statements about Taiwan, a Hong Kong-based analyst said Xi appears to have taken a tougher tone.

"Xi appears to be thinking more seriously about using force," said independent commentator Johnny Lau, noting that Xi expressed a fervent wish to expedite unification. But Lau said Xi would not take action on Taiwan in the near future as he is busy tackling a series of domestic issues.

Cross-strait relations have deteriorated since Tsai was elected in May 2016. China sees the president and her Democratic Progressive Party as seeking independence for Taiwan -- a red line for Beijing.

China views Taiwan as a wayward province with no right to be recognized internationally as a separate political entity. Taiwan has shown no will to be ruled by Beijing ever since Chiang Kai-shek and his defeated Nationalist forces fled to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war to the Communists that now rule China.

In his speech, the Chinese president concluded that the longtime political divide of two sides was the "root cause" harming the stability of cross-strait relations, and the burden "should not be passed on from generation to generation."

Xi also said that any independence movement would lead to "disaster," and Beijing "will not leave any room" for such activities.

Other analysts see Xi trying to fan the nationalism flame at a time when his authority is being increasingly challenged.

"Xi badly needs some victories on the power front," said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, pointing to criticism of the president within the party due to poor economic performance and trade friction with the U.S.

"Xi Jinping is ramping up the tension and doubling down on the military dimension."

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