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Tensions between China and Taiwan are the highest they've been in decades

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What is driving China's warnings to the United States over Taiwan? Friday on this program, China's ambassador to the U.S. gave his first one-on-one interview since assuming that office. And Ambassador Qin Gang alleged that Taiwan was moving toward independence with U.S. help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

QIN GANG: The Taiwan issue is the biggest tinderbox between China and the United States. If, you know, the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, you know, keep going down the road for independence, it'd most likely involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in a military conflict.

INSKEEP: OK, this is not the only time that China has warned the U.S. about Taiwan. But the talk of military conflict was unusually explicit. A little bit of background here - Taiwan is a self-governed democracy off the coast of China which China claims as its own. The U.S. no longer treats Taiwan as a sovereign nation but has supported it. Its future has been left ambiguous for decades. So why would tensions edge up now? David Rennie, the Beijing bureau chief of The Economist, joins us once again. David, welcome back.

DAVID RENNIE: Hello.

INSKEEP: What did you think about when you heard the ambassador's warning?

RENNIE: Look; I think he is a very smart man. He's a very senior figure. And he doesn't say things just off the cuff. So he wanted to send a signal to the Biden administration but also to American public opinion that the - kind of the current atmosphere of support for Taiwan, as you say, as a kind of friendly democracy with a progressive government that is reaching out to the States, that gets on well with the Biden administration. They want to say that could cost America very dearly. If you, in our view, encourage them to think that they have a future that does not involve one day accepting total control by China, then you are going to lead us into a war. And it's going to cost Americans very dearly. So I think he was sending a message to the government but also to your listeners that this is not a sort of cost-free gesture of support to a friendly little island - that China one day, potentially, going to make you pay a very high cost for that.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about those gestures of support. The United States has insisted on keeping Taiwan's status - future status especially ambiguous since the 1970s. And things have gotten along OK since then. But is the Biden administration, in fact, provoking China through some of its recent actions?

RENNIE: I don't think you can really make a serious case that the Biden administration is being more provocative, say, than the Trump administration, which was sending, you know, more senior figures that we'd seen before. I think fundamentally, the problem is that America thinks that the prudent, responsible thing to do is to play for time and kick this down the road because Taiwan is a small, friendly, Western democracy that deserves not to be crushed by the mainland next door. And if we can just keep pushing that off into the distance, that's the prudent, responsible thing to do. Seen from Beijing, where I am, they think that that is an irresponsible, provocative thing to do.

And why do they think that? It's because the passage of time works in two completely different ways. If you're Xi Jinping sitting in Beijing, every year that passes, you get militarily stronger. So that should make you, in some ways, more confident that you can wait a bit because if there has to be a war one day, maybe that will go in China's favor. But every year that passes in terms of Taiwanese hearts and minds, in terms of particularly young Taiwanese, the idea that they are Chinese and should one day fall under China's sway and give up large chunks of their democracy because they will never be allowed to have a full democracy that opposes Beijing - that, to them, seems horrifying and weird and like nothing that they recognize as their own identity. And so the passage of time is very scary to China. So there is a fundamental dispute about the American idea that it's prudent to keep kicking this down the road. China disagrees.

INSKEEP: So China, which we might have seen as impatient, perhaps a better description of their leadership might be fearful. They're fearful of this island getting away from them.

RENNIE: It's - you know, if you look at what they did in Hong Kong in 2019 when we saw the protests there, they finally lost patience with being defied by the people of Hong Kong. But that was a much, much easier case. There's no Hong Kong army. It was always part of China. It's a smaller place. And they have crushed that with extreme ruthlessness. Taiwan would be a whole bunch harder. It's across a hundred miles of very rough sea, be an incredibly ambitious amphibious landing. They would surely rather not have a war to take Taiwan back. But if you are the Chinese leader and you allow Taiwan to drift away so far that it never comes back, then you are a traitor to kind of Chinese history.

And so the pressures on Xi Jinping is, do I take a gamble of staying calm and hoping for time? But in the meantime, they see Taiwan drifting further and further away. And remember that from the perspective of Beijing, this is the unfinished business of the end of the Chinese Civil War. Mao defeated the right wing, pro-American dictatorship that ran China, drove them into exile in Taiwan. And the unfinished business is that the heirs to that regime sit on Taiwan and have not yet been taken back. And so to complete the victory of Mao, you have to one day take Taiwan back. That is the kind of historical force at work.

INSKEEP: We will keep discussing this. David Rennie is the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist. Thanks for your insights.

RENNIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.