TAOYUAN CITY, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen pledged Friday to step up military spending to defend the self-ruled island's sovereignty in the face of China's growing assertiveness in the region.
Beijing has rattled its neighbors including Taiwan, which communist mainland leaders claim as their territory, as well as Japan and South Korea by sending military aircraft close to their airspace in recent months.
"China's attempt to expand militarily in the region is more and more obvious," Tsai said at a news conference at a military research center. "Taiwan needs to stand up for its sovereignty, and it wants to protect regional peace, stability and prosperity."
China and Taiwan split in 1949 after Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled the mainland following a civil war. Beijing insists the two sides must unite, but surveys show most Taiwanese oppose that.
The mainland is expanding its regional reach by developing aircraft carriers and building artificial islands to enforce Beijing's claim to large swaths of the South China Sea.
"This situation is, put simply, not just a problem facing Taiwan," Tsai said at the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology. "It's one that countries are facing around the whole region."
Tsai gave no details of possible military spending increases, but a national security official said in October that the government would seek at least 2 percent each year.
Beijing increased military spending by 7 percent this year compared with 2016. For much of the past two decades, the People's Liberation Army has been awarded increases of at least 10 percent each year.
Tsai has emphasized domestic development and production of weapons. The U.S. government approved a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan in June but, in an effort to mollify Beijing, has been reluctant to supply everything the island's leadership wants.
"We can't rely on others," said Tsai. "As the president, I have the responsibility to protect our sovereignty and the responsibility to maintain peace and stability in the region."
Tsai, a 61-year-old law scholar who took office in May 2016, has irritated Beijing by rejecting its idea that both sides belong to "one China" as a condition for formal dialogue.
China has tried to punish the island by scaling back tourist travel to Taiwan, according to travel agents in Taipei. The island's government also suspects that Beijing has persuaded two foreign governments to end diplomatic recognition of Taiwan since 2016.
The institute where Tsai spoke has developed missile and radar systems and was picked by the defense ministry this year to develop trainer jets. The ministry also has signed up Taiwanese manufacturers to develop a $3.3 billion submarine.
"Don't for a minute underestimate Taiwan's domestic ability" to develop weaponry, the president said.
Tsai suggested that countries in East Asia "with similar ideas" communicate about China's military movements. But she expects officials in Beijing to shun the use of force.
"I believe any reasonable policymaker — and I believe the current Chinese leader is a reasonable policymaker — would not want to use military force at this time or at any time to resolve the Taiwan issue and that this wouldn't be his current strategy," she said.
Over the past two years, Chinese warplanes have flown near Taiwan's military defense zone some 10 times, according to a former Taiwanese defense minister, Andrew Yang.
In November, bombers and other aircraft were spotted in the Miyako Strait north of Taiwan and in the Luzon Strait separating the island from the Philippines, the defense ministry said. It said Chinese aircraft flew through the two straits again on Dec. 11.
"Psychologically and politically, it certainly sends a message," Yang said.
China's aircraft are testing Taiwan's resolve to defend itself, said Shane Lee, a political scientist at Chang Jung Christian University.
After President Trump signed a law this month that opened the way for U.S. Navy ships to visit Taiwan, a Chinese diplomat quoted by state media said the mainland would attack the day that happened.