WASHINGTON — Taiwan is watching events in Ukraine with "much concern and anxiety" but plans to make any possible Chinese military attack on Taiwan "too painful" to consider, Taipei's representative in Washington, Bi-khim Hsiao, said in an interview.
Hsiao made the comments as Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned during a trip to Asia over the weekend that other countries were monitoring the Ukraine crisis closely and that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could have repercussions for the Pacific region.
Hsiao, who arrived in Washington in 2020 to lead Taiwan's diplomatic mission in the U.S., said her government hoped the crisis over Ukraine could be settled through diplomacy.
"Like everyone else in the world, we are watching the situation with much concern and anxiety," she said. "We certainly hope that the situation can be resolved peacefully through diplomatic means. But at the same time, Taiwan has distinct historical and geopolitical circumstances, and we need to be focused on our priority, and that is bolstering Taiwan's self-defense."
Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, said last month that her nation "empathized" with the plight of Ukrainians because of the military threat Taiwan faces from its powerful larger neighbor. She ordered the creation of a task force to study how tensions between Russia and Ukraine could affect Taiwan's own long-running conflict with Beijing.
Former U.S. officials say China will gauge the U.S. response to Russia as a possible guide to how Washington might counter a crisis over Taiwan.
Asked about a recent joint declaration from Moscow and Beijing in which Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed support for Russia's stance on Ukraine, Hsiao said the two countries were cooperating in ways that posed a challenge to democracies.
"I think it's pretty clear to all of us around the world that those undermining stability are China and Russia," she said.
Russia's troop buildup around Ukraine began last year, but Taiwanese and U.S. officials say China has been engaged in threatening behavior toward Taipei for years, including deploying missiles near the island and repeatedly flying into the island's air defense zone.
Hsiao, who was raised in Taiwan and educated at Oberlin College in Ohio and Columbia University in New York, said Taiwan has made it clear that it wants to resolve the dispute with Beijing peacefully and has focused on strengthening its defenses to send a signal to Beijing that it would pay a price for any aggression.
"The Chinese must not miscalculate our resolve to defend Taiwan's democracy and the peace and stability of the region," Hsiao said, adding, "Our goal, everything that we are doing, is to bolster our self-defenses in a way that would make any consideration or operationalization of the threat too painful to consider."
Beijing considers Taiwan an integral part of China that must be brought back under Chinese rule, by force if necessary. The U.S. recognized Beijing as the sole government of China in 1979 but refused to support the Chinese regime's claims of sovereignty over Taiwan. Washington has also committed to providing for the defense of Taipei, without ever precisely spelling out what that entails.
China has accused the U.S. of fueling tensions in the Pacific with naval patrols, trying to block Beijing's rise as a world power and provoking conflict by selling fighter jets and other weaponry to Taiwan.
"Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's territory. These facts are grounded in history and law, and represent a universally agreed norm governing international relations," said Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson for China's embassy in Washington. "China's reunification is an unstoppable historical trend that will not be changed by anyone, any force or any country."
Flights and other activity by the People's Liberation Army, or PLA, near Taiwan were designed to protect the principle of "one-China" and to promote peace in the Taiwan Strait, Liu said in an email.
"Over the past year," he said, "the PLA has conducted regular patrols and combat drills in the waters and airspace around the Taiwan island. The objectives of these actions are very clear: to take decisive countermeasures against the egregious actions of forces within and outside the island to collude and challenge the one-China principle; to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity; and to concretely safeguard the common welfare of compatriots on both sides of the Strait and maintain peace and stability in the Strait."
Hsiao said China has tried to wear down Taipei through pressure tactics, bullying and disinformation that stops short of outright military action, in what her government calls "gray zone warfare."
Last month, Taiwan had to scramble fighter jets to warn off 32 Chinese military aircraft that flew into the island's air defense zone.
"The Chinese have also been launching cyberattacks, disinformation, cognitive and psychological warfare on the people of Taiwan, aimed at weakening our resolve to our self-defense and also trying to sow divisions within our society," Hsiao said.
Last year, Adm. Phil Davidson, then the head of the U.S. military's Indo-Pacific Command, warned lawmakers that China's goal was to take control of Taiwan and that it could stage an invasion within "the next six years."
Hsiao said Taiwan and the U.S. were engaged in "intense cooperation and engagement to bolster Taiwan's self-defenses" with the aim of persuading Beijing not to launch a military attack.
"We are not in a position to engage in an arms race with China. What we are doing is to fortify our defenses in a smart and strategic way so that we have the capacity to deter a military threat," she said.
Governments that have refused to sever ties with Taiwan or that have criticized Beijing have faced economic retaliation from China, including those of Lithuania and Australia, she said. Democratic countries need to rally, she said, and show China that Beijing's "coercion" will not succeed.
"Bullies bully because they think they can get away with it," she said. "And I think it's all the more important now that democracies work together to look into the toolbox we have in terms of countering economic coercion."
China's crushing of democracy in Hong Kong had "destroyed any credibility" that Beijing would be willing to grant more democratic rights or autonomy to some regions under the "One Country, Two Systems" formula, she said.
Hsiao said Taiwan faced a difficult choice when it came to sending its athletes to the Olympic Games hosted by China.
Taiwan had to balance its concerns about China's human rights record with Taipei's efforts to be recognized on the world stage after having been excluded or sidelined by Beijing, she said. "It was a very complicated situation for us," she said.
The government of Taiwan decided to send athletes while joining a diplomatic boycott along with the U.S., Australia and other countries.
The government also had to take into account the need to ensure "Taiwan's continuing international participation in other occasions and international sports events," she said.
Hsiao has pushed back against China's assertive public messaging with a bit of humor. While China's blunt-speaking envoys are known for their "wolf warrior diplomacy," Hsiao refers to herself as the "cat warrior."
Taiwan has a lot in common with felines, she said.
"I believe cats are certainly much more lovable than wolves. Cats are nimble, flexible. Cats can survive in small spaces, which exemplifies Taiwan's current international situation," she said.
"But also, cats have the characteristic that we cannot be coerced. And cats have nine lives, and we're surviving in a very precarious, volatile situation where we're often walking on tightropes and achieving that balance for our own survival."