(CNN) — China’s threat to Taiwan is “more serious than ever,” but the island will stand firm to protect its freedom and democracy — including by welcoming those who support it, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told CNN in an interview Monday.
Wu’s defiant message came as China said it continued military drills around the self-governing island, after a four-day show of force following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taipei last week.
“China has always been threatening Taiwan for years and it’s getting more serious in the last few years,” Wu said. “Whether Speaker Pelosi visits Taiwan or not, the Chinese military threat against Taiwan has always been there and that is the fact that we need to deal with.”
Welcoming overseas friends to the island was a key part of Taiwan’s strategy to counter China’s attempts to isolate it from the international community — regardless of the potential backlash from Beijing, Wu said.
“(China) cannot dictate to Taiwan that we should not welcome anyone who likes to come and show support for Taiwan,” said Wu, who has served as Taiwan’s foreign minister since 2018.
Pelosi’s Taiwan trip — the first by a sitting House Speaker to the island in 25 years — was vehemently opposed by China’s ruling Communist Party, which views Taiwan as its territory despite never having controlled it.
In the wake of Pelosi’s visit, Beijing has ramped up pressure on Taiwan, including via economic penalties, the launch of missiles over the island for the first time, and drills that Taipei has said were meant to “simulate” an attack against its main island and navy.
Though those exercises were originally expected to end Sunday, drills around Taiwan continued Monday, according to an announcement from China’s military.
But as the live-fire drills raised global fears of a possible military conflict, the mood in Taiwan remained calm, with life carrying on as usual with packed restaurants and crowded public transport.
For Wu, the threat made it even more critical that Taiwan continue to build its international relationships and show it is not afraid.
“I worry that China may really launch a war against Taiwan,” he said. “But what it is doing right now is trying to scare us and the best way to deal with it (is) to show to China that we are not scared.”
Pelosi in Taiwan
Though her trip was long mooted and much discussed, Taiwanese officials only received short notice of her arrival, Wu said.
“Since her travel is always subject to a lot of considerations, especially security considerations … we were not able to find out until the very last moment when she firmed up her plan,” Wu said, adding Taipei knew the itinerary a few days beforehand, but not the exact timing of her arrival.
The visit from the speaker and an accompanying congressional delegation included meetings at Taiwan’s legislature and the office of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, where Pelosi said they came to send an “unequivocal message” that “America stands with Taiwan.”
Wu said his most memorable impression of the trip was greeting Pelosi and the delegation at the airport, where she “showed her charm” by saying she’d been looking forward to her visit for a long time.
“And by the time she departed, she not only said goodbye to me, but also said goodbye to the ground crew, the security people, and to those people who had been taking care of the airport, one by one,” Wu said.
When asked whether the United States would increase its support for Taiwan after the visit, Wu said the US has always been “highly supportive” of Taiwan — but the current support was “unprecedented.”
In an exclusive interview with CNN last October, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen confirmed some US military trainers were in Taiwan — the first time a Taiwanese leader had admitted to their presence since Washington and Taipei severed diplomatic ties in 1979.
But perceptions of American support sparked Beijing’s ire against the speaker’s visit, with China’s foreign ministry issuing a statement on the heels of Pelosi’s arrival Tuesday evening saying her trip would have a “severe impact on the political foundation of China-US relations,” and “gravely undermines peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
Beijing announced the large-scale military exercises in what it said were six zones around the island of Taiwan swiftly after Pelosi’s arrival, in response to what it viewed as an infringement of China’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
While the US and many of its allies have decried the drills, China defended its actions as “legitimate and justified,” saying it was the US, not China, who was “the biggest saboteur and destabilizer of peace in the Taiwan Strait,” where China claims “sovereign rights and jurisdiction.”
‘Wrecking’ the status quo
Taiwan and China have been governed separately since the end of a civil war more than seven decades ago, in which the defeated Nationalists fled to Taipei. Taiwan transitioned from authoritarian rule to a democracy in the 1990s, and is now ranked one of the freest jurisdictions in Asia by Freedom House, a US-based non-profit organization.
In recent years, as his power has grown, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made clear his ambitions to “reunify” with the island — by force if necessary.
Wu accused China of trying to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, including by conducting military exercises in recent days across the median line — the halfway point between the island and mainland China that has previously been an informal but largely respected border of control between Beijing and Taipei.
Dozens of Chinese warplanes crossed the median line between Thursday and Sunday, according to accounts from Taiwan’s Defense Ministry. While the informal median line has largely preserved peace in the Taiwan Strait for decades, China now openly denies its existence.
“This kind of behavior is wrecking the status quo, and it’s wrecking peace and stability in this region and it should not be accepted,” Wu said, adding that China had sought to declare the Taiwan Strait as its internal waters for “some time” before Pelosi’s visit.
That had implications beyond Taiwan as China seeks to expand its influence across the Western Pacific, Wu said. But he added that he remained optimistic about the future.
“Democracy is going to prevail,” he said. “If you look at authoritarianism, it’s not resilient. It may appear strong, and it may appear to be expanding. But it’s not resilient and at some point is going to break.”
When asked if the situation could be called a crisis, Wu said that was ultimately up to Beijing.
“It depends on the will of the Chinese leaders to see whether they want to pursue the relations with Taiwan … in a peaceful and stable manner.”
Wu said he doesn’t know whether Chinese leaders “have made up their mind” to use force to take Taiwan, but Taiwanese officials were “looking at several different scenarios,” in particular due to concerns that Beijing could seek to divert attention from domestic problems by creating a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
“The important thing for us is that we need to be prepared,” Wu said. “We want to defend the freedom and democracy that we enjoy over here. Nobody can take that away from us.”