TAIPEI -- President Tsai Ing-wen said Sunday that Taiwan won't bow to pressure to give up its sovereignty, a day after Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to bring the democratic island under Beijing's control.
"The more we achieve, the greater the pressure we face from China," Tsai said during a national holiday speech to an audience of thousands outside the presidential building in Taipei. "We hope for an easing of cross-strait relations and will not act rashly, but there should be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people will bow to pressure."
Taiwan faces a growing threat from China, but the world is waking up to the island's importance as a democratic partner on the front lines of Beijing's authoritarian expansion, Tsai said. She pointed to the recent and ongoing dismantling of democracy and civil liberties in Hong Kong as proof of Beijing's threat to free societies.
"I want to remind all my fellow citizens that we do not have the privilege of letting down our guard," Tsai said.
Later in the day, China's Taiwan Affairs Office denounced Tsai's speech, saying it incited confrontation and distorted facts, according to Reuters.
China's ruling Communist Party claims Taiwan as its territory, despite having never ruled it. Beijing ratcheted up the pressure with nearly 150 aerial incursions into Taiwan's air defense identification zone over the first four days of October. Taiwan's defense minister said Wednesday that tensions are at their worst in 40 years and warned that Beijing already has the ability to invade and will be capable of mounting a "full scale" invasion by 2025.
Mark Harrison, a senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Tasmania, described Tsai's address as "a strong speech that stayed within established policy boundaries in relations with Beijing."
"Tsai expressed the confidence of her government, having strengthened Taiwan's international status and met the challenge of the pandemic," he said.
When Tsai took office in 2016, Beijing took measures to isolate her and Taiwan in order to pressure her into renouncing Taiwanese sovereignty. Tsai stood her ground and has been receiving growing diplomatic support from around the world, beginning with the U.S. during the Trump administration.
The combination of China's increasingly fierce diplomacy toward other democracies and Taiwan's successful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including donations of millions of masks to fellow democracies, has helped boost a loose but expanding coalition of countries speaking up for Taiwan's right to exist free of Chinese coercion.
"In Washington, Tokyo, Canberra, and Brussels, Taiwan is no longer on the margins, with more and more democratic friends willing to stand up for us," Tsai said.
Taiwan's diplomatic advances under Tsai have been key to pushing back against Chinese pressure on Taiwan's already limited international space. Despite having all the trappings of a country, its government is not a member of the United Nations, and is only officially recognized by 14 countries and the Holy See.
"Deepening ties with the United States and other democratic partners is vital to enhancing Taiwan's participation in the international community and, in turn, strengthening those partners' resolve to support Taiwan," said Maggie Lewis, a Taipei-based law professor at Seton Hall University.
Tsai thanked Japan, the U.S., Lithuania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland for returning the favor of the millions of masks that Taiwan donated last year by donating millions of much-needed vaccines to the island.
"This is a virtuous cycle, and I can assure the international community that Taiwan will continue to contribute to the world and expand this virtuous cycle further afield," she said.
Taiwan does not have its own national day holiday, as it is still officially administered by the Republic of China government that took control of the former Japanese colony after Tokyo's surrender in 1945. The ROC government relocated from China to Taiwan in 1949 after being overthrown by the communist revolution. China has threatened Taiwan with war if it disposes of the Republic of China name and constitution.
"In reaffirming her commitment to the status quo of the Republic of China's political identity, President Tsai underscored that Taiwan today is anything but static," Lewis said. "She depicted a dynamic country working for greater inclusion both at home and abroad."
Tsai and her administration have embraced the ROC's national day as Taiwan's de facto national day. The holiday, which commemorates a 1911 uprising in the Chinese city of Wuhan -- when Taiwan was a Japanese colony -- is also celebrated in China, as it marks the beginning of the revolution that toppled the Qing Dynasty.
Tsai's speech came a day after Xi commemorated the holiday by reiterating his call for unification with Taiwan.
"It has never ended well for those who forget their ancestors, betray the motherland, or split the country," Xi said on Saturday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Contradicting the Communist Party's ethnonationalist assertions, only 2.4% of Taiwan citizens consider themselves to be Chinese and not Taiwanese, according to a poll by National Cheng Chi University published this summer.
Peaceful unification "is most in line with the overall interests of the Chinese nation, including the Taiwan compatriots," Xi said in his speech, yet only 1% of democratic Taiwan favors unification with authoritarian China, making Xi's dream of taking the sovereign island without a fight all but impossible.
As she has done since her inauguration in 2016, Tsai called for cross-strait talks with China, provided the two sides meet as equals, a condition that Beijing rejects out of hand.
"Our position on cross-strait relations remains the same: neither our goodwill nor our commitments will change," Tsai said. "We call for maintaining the status quo, and we will do our utmost to prevent the status quo from being unilaterally altered."