TAIPEI―Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen reassured residents that the island was secure Tuesday, a day before China is set to hold live-fire drills in the narrow strait that separates the two.
Tsai spoke to reporters as she left for Swaziland, one of Taiwan’s few remaining international allies that has not been wooed away by an ascendant Beijing as cross-strait relations deteriorate.
Chinese officials have suggested Wednesday’s military exercise is a warning to pro-independence advocates in Taiwan as Beijing steps up its rhetoric against any challenges to its sovereignty.
China sees self-ruling Taiwan as part of its territory to be brought back into the fold and has not ruled out reunification by force.
Tsai said Monday she had told national security officials to closely monitor the “surrounding situation”.
“Please rest assured that we have the confidence and determination to safeguard the country’s security,” she said at Taoyuan International Airport.
Tsai added that maintaining a peaceful “status quo” across the strait was her government’s mission.
Although a fully fledged democracy, Taiwan has never formally announced independence from the mainland and Beijing has warned of military action if it ever did.
Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party is traditionally pro-independence and her newly appointed premier William Lai is a long-standing independence advocate.
When asked if the upcoming military exercise was directed at Lai, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office director Liu Jieyi said on Monday it was “an action to safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our motherland”.
Beijing has stepped up military patrols around the island and used diplomatic pressure to isolate Taiwan internationally since Tsai took office in May 2016, as she refuses to accept both sides are part of “one China”.
China has chipped away at Taiwan’s dwindling number of allies, with Swaziland one of the few not to have been convinced to give up official recognition of the island as a country.
On her four-day trip to Africa, Tsai will take part in celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of Swaziland’s independence and the establishment of diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Observers say Wednesday’s planned drills also serve as a signal to Washington, which sent aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt through the disputed South China Sea last week.
The region has become a potential flash point, with the United States saying China’s aggressive activities in the area pose a threat to freedom of navigation.
Washington is also Taiwan’s most powerful―thought unofficial―ally and its biggest arms supplier.
Relations have warmed between Washington and Taipei in recent months, including the passage of a bill last month that promotes visits by officials at all levels.