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Helicopters fly over the Office of the President with Taiwan's national flag during national day celebrations in Taipei on Oct. 10, 2021.Chiang Ying-ying/The Associated Press

Taiwan is “on democracy’s first line of defence,” President Tsai Ing-wen said Sunday, as the island marked its national day under a cloud of Chinese aggression.

“The more we achieve, the greater the pressure we face from China,” Ms. Tsai said outside the presidential palace in Taipei. “We do not have the privilege of letting down our guard.”

She promised Taiwan would not “act rashly,” and desired peaceful cross-strait relations, but would continue to “demonstrate our determination to defend ourselves in order to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us.”

“The path that China has laid out offers neither a free and democratic way of life for Taiwan, nor sovereignty for our 23 million people,” Ms. Tsai added.

On Saturday, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to realize peaceful “reunification” with Taiwan, though he did not directly mention the use of force, following repeated sorties by Chinese warplanes on the edge of Taiwanese airspace in recent weeks.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during national day celebrations in front of the presidential palace in Taipei.SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

The Thunder Tiger Aerobatics Team flies over the Office of the President.Chiang Ying-ying/The Associated Press

Both leaders were speaking to mark 110 years since the Wuchang Uprising, which kicked off the revolution that brought down the Qing Dynasty, ending millennia of imperial rule and establishing the Republic of China.

Following the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the defeated Kuomintang government retreated to the island of Taiwan, which is still officially known as the ROC. While Taiwan was never controlled by the Communist Party, Beijing claims it as part of its inherent territory, and has vowed to pursue unification by force if necessary.

In 2019, Mr. Xi reiterated this threat, and this year promised to “smash” any attempts at formal independence. Since Oct. 1, when the People’s Republic of China marked its own national day, close to 150 Chinese warplanes have flown sorties near Taiwanese airspace.

While the Chinese Leader denounced Taiwanese “separatism” as “the most serious hidden danger to national rejuvenation,” emphasizing a desire for peaceful unification could help reduce tensions in East Asia that have been ratcheting up for months.

Last week, Taiwanese Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said the current situation was “the most serious” in more than 40 years, adding there was a risk of a “misfire” across the sensitive Taiwan Strait.

“For me as a military man, the urgency is right in front of me,” he told a parliamentary committee reviewing an extra military spending plan worth $10.6-billion over the next five years for homemade weapons, including missiles and warships.

Members of the chemical troop wave during the national day celebrations in Taipei.ANN WANG/Reuters

However, while Taiwan has complained repeatedly about China’s planes harrying them, the situation is far less dramatic than the crisis ahead of the 1996 presidential election, the last time the two were on the brink of war. Then, China carried out missile tests in waters close to Taiwan hoping to prevent people voting for Lee Teng-hui, viewed as being pro-independence. Mr. Lee won convincingly.

Mr. Chiu said China would be capable of mounting a “full scale” invasion by 2025.

“By 2025, China will bring the cost and attrition to its lowest. It has the capacity now, but it will not start a war easily, having to take many other things into consideration,” he said.

Taiwan has been attempting to ramp up its domestic deterrence and reorient military spending, which in the past has been criticized for attempting to match Chinese offensive capabilities rather than focusing on defence.

Taiwanese soldiers salute in front of the presidential building.Chiang Ying-ying/The Associated Press

“If you insist on always spending money on F-16s, F-35s, you’ll have no chance at all,” Admiral Lee Hsi-min, who stepped down as head of Taiwan’s armed forces in 2019, told The Globe and Mail this year. “All those shiny presents are easy to destroy with a long-range strike. But if you can preserve your forces and capabilities [after the initial attack], then they’ve got a problem when it comes to sending troops to the island.”

Mr. Lee is a major advocate of a plan known as “fortress” or “porcupine Taiwan,” which has also been endorsed by Ms. Tsai.

The island has also been making concerted efforts to improve its international standing, following years of China picking off its already scant formal allies one by one, offering generous trade and economic benefits to those who switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing.

Taiwan was praised globally for its response to the coronavirus pandemic, and many countries lobbied for it to be allowed an observer seat at World Health Organization events, as it did prior to Ms. Tsai’s election, when Beijing moved to have Taiwan ejected from the body.

During Donald Trump’s U.S. presidency, his health secretary, Alex Azar, flew to Taiwan in August last year, the highest-level U.S. visit in four decades. Multiple other foreign politicians have also visited the island in recent months, a sign both of Taiwan’s growing standing and increased international suspicion of Beijing.

Ms. Tsai, left, and Vice-President William Lai applaud in front of the presidential palace.SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

Speaking in Taipei on Friday, Alain Richard, a French senator and former defence minister, criticized attempts by China to isolate Taiwan, including objecting to it being called a country.

“It’s a fine diplomatic issue, but what is striking to me is that the name of this island and this country is Taiwan,” he said. “So there is no big point in trying to, you know, prevent this country to use its name.”

Mr. Richard’s visit coincided with that of former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, who said he had gone to Taiwan to help end its international isolation.

Speaking at a forum in Taipei on Friday, Mr. Abbott, who said he was there in a private capacity, said he had previously “hesitated to attend this conference lest that provoke China.”

But, after listing a number of recent Chinese actions that have attracted international opprobrium, he said he had “concluded that China’s belligerence is all self-generated.”

A woman takes a photo with Taiwan's national flags in front of the presidential building.Chiang Ying-ying/The Associated Press

A woman holds and wears Taiwan's national flag during national day celebrations.Chiang Ying-ying/The Associated Press

“Nothing is more pressing right now, than solidarity with Taiwan, if we want a better world; hence my enthusiastic presence here today, to stand with this island that’s brave and free,” Mr. Abbott said, urging other democratic countries to “support this fellow democracy, including by welcoming Taiwan into the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

Both China and Taiwan are pushing to join the TPP, the vast trade deal that was advanced by Barack Obama when he was U.S. president but scrapped by Mr. Trump, only to reemerge – without U.S. involvement – as the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In a fiery statement Saturday, China’s embassy in Australia denounced Mr. Abbott as a “failed and pitiful politician.”

“His recent despicable and insane performance in the island of Taiwan fully exposed his hideous anti-China features, which will only further discredit him,” the embassy said.

The theme of this year’s national day was “Broadening Democratic Alliances and Making International Friendships,” and Ms. Tsai hailed those countries which had donated vaccines and other medical supplies to help Taiwan get through the pandemic.

She added that “the global shortage of semiconductor chips has highlighted Taiwan’s importance in supply chains,” while “a changing situation in the Indo-Pacific has once again brought attention to Taiwan’s key position in the region.”

“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,” Ms. Tsai said. “Taiwan today is no longer seen as the orphan of Asia, but as an island of resilience that can face challenges with courage.”

With a report from Reuters.

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