China Suggests Attack on Taiwan Can't Be Called 'Invasion'

Beijing has given the strongest hint yet that it would reject attempts to categorize a future attack on Taiwan as an "invasion," after a government official suggested the term wouldn't apply to another "part of China."

The Chinese government in Beijing, established after the Chinese Civil War in 1949, has never governed Taiwan, whose president, Tsai Ing-wen, describes the island democracy as a "functionally independent" country, albeit one with limited recognition by a handful of U.N. member states.

China's ambition to annex the island is stifled only by Taiwanese will to resist and continued security assistance from the United States, which has remained Taiwan's strongest international backer for decades despite switching formal diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

China Says Taiwan Attack Wouldn't Be 'Invasion'
Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on April 26, 2022. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin protested Blinken’s remarks in an April 27 press conference after senior American diplomat said the U.S. would ensure Taiwan had “all necessary mean” to defend itself against aggression by China. Al Drago/Pool/Getty Images

During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday, lawmakers pressed Secretary of State Antony Blinken for assurances that the administration of President Joe Biden would help sustain this long-standing "status quo" across the Taiwan Strait, primarily through the transfer of arms and training.

"We are determined to make sure that [Taiwan] has all the necessary means to defend itself against any potential aggression, including unilateral action by China to disrupt the status quo that's been in place now for many decades," Blinken said.

On Wednesday, Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, voiced opposition to Blinken's comments. He suggested they were inconsistent with the U.S.'s "one China" policy, which recognizes the legitimacy of Beijing's governance over mainland China, but only acknowledges its claim to Taiwan.

Officially, the U.S. considers the status of Taiwan, a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945, to be undetermined under international law. As such, it takes no position on sovereignty over the island. In 2021, after a summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Biden appeared to endorse Taiwanese self-determination, saying: "Let them make up their mind."

"Since Taiwan is a part of China, how can the mainland 'invade' Taiwan?" Wang said, according to a Chinese-language transcript of his remarks. Incidentally, Beijing hasn't publicly called Russia's war against Ukraine an "invasion" either.

An English version on the Foreign Ministry's website included an additional line not said by the official: "The U.S. admits that Taiwan is part of China, but keeps talking about the mainland's potential 'aggression' of Taiwan. Isn't this self-contradictory since a country cannot 'invade' part of its own territory?"

Despite what appears to be a clear disagreement between Beijing and Washington in interpreting the status quo, Wang accused the U.S. of "reneging" on its commitments. It would push Taiwan into "dangerous waters" and lead to "unbearable cost" for America, too, he said.

China Says Taiwan Attack Wouldn't Be 'Invasion'
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin attends a regular press briefing in Beijing on November 9, 2020. Wang suggested at a press conference on April 27, 2022, that China would reject attempts to classify a future attack on Taiwan as an “invasion,” as it considers the island part of its territory. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Taiwan, known formally as the Republic of China, "is a peace-loving, highly developed, and mature democracy" with diplomatic missions in more than 70 countries, its Foreign Ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou said in a statement.

"The Taiwan government has consistently upheld a liberal democratic constitutional system," she told Newsweek. "The future of the Republic of China (Taiwan) is determined by Taiwan's 23.5 million people. The common consensus of the Taiwanese people is to maintain their democratic system and free way of life."

"Taiwan's sovereignty belongs to the Taiwanese people, and only Taiwanese themselves can decide Taiwan's future," Ou said.

The U.S. has stepped up efforts to help Taiwan bolster its self-defense, but it hasn't publicly committed to come to its defense in the event of a Chinese attack. Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, successive American administrations have supplied Taiwan with defensive weapons, but all have stopped short of an ironclad guarantee of direct military support—a deliberate policy of "strategic ambiguity" that keeps both sides guessing.

Taiwan's fate has been the subject of renewed attention in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. While Taiwanese officials don't believe an attack is imminent, they do see an alarming buildup of Chinese capabilities, and are trying to instill a sense of urgency in Taiwan's public.

Reached on Thursday, a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek: "Our defense relationship with Taiwan continues to be commensurate with the threat we assess it faces from the [People's Republic of China], consistent with our one China policy."

"The United States takes no position on sovereignty over Taiwan, only that cross-strait issues are resolved peacefully according to the will and best interests of the people on Taiwan," said the spokesperson.

"We strongly urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure and coercion against Taiwan. This activity is destabilizing, risks miscalculations, and undermines regional peace and stability. We continue to urge the PRC to engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan's democratically elected representatives," the statement said.

When asked the perennial question about a hypothetical response to a future move on the island, senior U.S. officials often point to the need to increase deterrence in the Taiwan Strait by raising awareness among America's key allies.

"Certainly, we have expressed our concerns about China taking efforts to unilaterally change the status quo, and we think they are carefully looking at what's happening in Ukraine to learn lessons writ large, including with respect to Taiwan," Jake Sullivan, the president's national security adviser, told The Economic Club earlier this month.

He continued: "Now for the U.S. ourselves, the situation with Ukraine and the situation with Taiwan are not the same. Our relationship with Taiwan is governed by the Taiwan Relations Act; our security partnership is governed by the Taiwan Relations Act.

"One of the things that we have focused on in the past several weeks is actually deep consultations with allies and partners, including in Europe, to say: 'This kind of thing can happen in Europe; this kind of thing can also happen in the Indo-Pacific.'

"It's incumbent upon responsible countries in the world to send a clear message that any type of aggression is unacceptable wherever it happens."

Asked whether that meant an explicit U.S. aim to defend Taiwan against an invasion, Sullivan concluded: "Our official government policy is that we're going to take every step we possibly can to ensure that never happens."

The State Department didn't respond to Newsweek's request for comment before publication.

Update 04/28/22 at 2:10 a.m. ET. This article was updated to include comments by Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Update 04/28/22 at 8:50 a.m. ET. This article was updated to include comments by the Department of State.