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China warns of risk of military conflict with US over Taiwan

The Chinese ambassador to Washington has warned that the US and China could end up at war over Taiwan, in stark comments illustrating the rising tensions between the powers over the fate of the island.

“If the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, keep going down the road for independence, it most likely will involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in a military conflict,” Qin Gang told NPR in his first one-on-one interview since arriving in the US last July.

Beijing has often reprimanded the US over its stance on Taiwan, a self-governed country over which China claims sovereignty, but Chinese officials rarely talk directly about war. While Qin warned about possible conflict, he also said China was striving for peaceful unification.

In a virtual meeting last November, President Xi Jinping told Joe Biden that anyone advocating for Taiwanese independence was “playing with fire”. The US president said the two leaders must ensure that competition between the powers did not “veer into conflict”.

Since Washington switched diplomatic allegiance from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, the US has maintained a “one China” policy under which it recognises Beijing as the sole seat of government in China.

The Biden administration has loosened restrictions on American officials meeting their Taiwanese counterparts and offered strong support for Taiwan as it comes under increasing pressure from China.

Qin said the Biden administration was hollowing out the “one China” policy and “playing the Taiwan card to contain China”.

Zack Cooper, an Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said the Biden administration could view Chinese behaviour as undermining hopes for a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan issue.

“Both sides increasingly see the other as endangering the status quo, which is a recipe for danger in coming years,” said Cooper.

On Sunday, the Chinese military flew 39 fighter jets and other warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ), as part of an escalating campaign to both pressure the government in Taipei and train for possible future military action.

The US maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity” under which it does not say if it would defend Taiwan from any Chinese invasion. The policy is designed to both warn Taiwanese officials against declaring independence — which would almost certainly trigger a Chinese attack — and make Beijing think twice about any military action.

The FT last week reported that the Chinese navy had established a constant presence between southern Japan and eastern Taiwan for the first time, underscoring the rising military pressure on the island.

Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund, said Qin’s comments were not inconsistent with those of other Chinese officials who “are signalling their displeasure with the trajectory of US-Taiwan relations and Taiwan’s policies”.

Elbridge Colby, a former top Pentagon official, said it was a “pretty significant signal that Beijing’s new ambassador chose his first sit-down interview to issue a stern warning about Taiwan, and specifically emphasised Beijing’s willingness to use force”.

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