China’s ambassador to the United States issued a warning Thursday: The U.S. could face “military conflict” with China over the future status of Taiwan.

In his first one-on-one interview since assuming his post in Washington, D.C., last July, Qin Gang accused Taiwan of “walking down the road toward independence,” and added, “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.”

It was an unusually direct statement about the U.S. and Taiwan. Observers say China more commonly speaks in more general terms, such as saying that the U.S. is “playing with fire.”

Though American eyes may be focused thousands of miles away toward a threatened war in Ukraine, U.S. officials and analysts have voiced increasing concern about Taiwan’s ability to defend itself. This week, 39 Chinese military aircraft flew near Taiwan, the latest of several such demonstrations. It’s widely believed that the U.S. would defend Taiwan in the event of war, though no formal treaty requires it to do so.

Ambassador Qin spoke of Taiwan at his official residence Thursday, where he welcomed NPR’s team to discuss U.S. relations with China and the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. He is a veteran diplomat who previously served as the chief of foreign affairs protocol for China’s President Xi Jinping.

Qin arrived in Washington last year at a time of bipartisan disappointment with China. It’s widely conceded in Washington that a decades-long policy of engagement with China produced great wealth for many companies, but failed to spark democratic reform. Qin told us that any ideas of “changing China” were always “an illusion.”

Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the U.S., sits for a portrait at his official residence in Washington, D.C., Thursday.

He spoke of the upcoming Olympics with pride: “Beijing is ready.” These are the second Olympic Games hosted by Beijing, with athletes and others largely living inside a secure “bubble” to protect against coronavirus infection.

“diplomatic boycott” of the Games by U.S. officials has added tension, though U.S. athletes will compete and only a few U.S. allies have followed suit. The U.S. announced the boycott in protest of what it terms the “ongoing genocide” of Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim minority in western China. Qin rejected such accusations as “fabrications, lies and disinformation.”

He nonetheless asserted that some Uyghurs were terrorists.

“The destination for them is prisons,” he said, while asserting that others had inappropriate thoughts that they were being taught to change in “vocational schools.”

NPR correspondents have documented widespread imprisonment of Uyghurs, as well as efforts to turn them away from their language and culture. NPR has also reported a security architecture in the western province of Xinjiang that is even more intense than in other regions of China, with cameras and police stations that are nearly ubiquitous.

The U.S. has become more vocal in defense of Uyghurs as overall relations have soured. If either side hoped for a reset in relations after the departure of former President Donald Trump, it hasn’t quite happened. President Biden has yet to remove Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods, and U.S. diplomats have traded contentious statements with their Chinese counterparts.

China’s Ambassador to the U.S. Qin Gang called Taiwan “the biggest tinderbox” among irritants in the relationship between his country and the U.S.

Of the many irritants in the relationship, the ambassador described Taiwan as “the biggest tinderbox.” It has governed itself separately for generations. Unlike the rest of China, Taiwan was not conquered by Communist forces in the civil war that led to the declaration of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The former government took refuge there and, with U.S. support, eventually developed a democratic system.

Beijing has long sought unification with Taiwan, and has not renounced the use of force to meet that goal. The U.S. has said it expects the matter to be settled peacefully.

“People on both sides of the Taiwan Straits are Chinese,” Qin said, arguing that his government has no desire for war. However, in a sharp rebuff of any effort by Taiwan’s government to formally declare independence, he said, “China will not commit to giving up the un-peaceful means for reunification because this is a deterrent.”

Even so, Qin said China’s “most important relationship” is with the United States, and gave a straightforward description of his mission in Washington: “Don’t mess it up.”


Interview highlights

On whether Americans should be concerned about a Chinese attack on Taiwan:

“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 most likely will involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in the military conflict.”

On the prospect of military conflict:

“People on both sides of Taiwan Straits are Chinese, so we are compatriots. So the last thing we should do is to fight with compatriots. And we will do our utmost in the greatest sincerity to achieve a peaceful reunification…. But… that Taiwanese authority is working down the road towards independence, emboldened by the United States. So China will not commit to giving up the un-peaceful means for reunification because this is a deterrence.”

On policies and human rights abuses against mostly Muslim Uyghur populations in western China that prompted the U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Olympics in Beijing:

“The actual condition is that Uyghur people as other ethnic groups of people, they enjoy happy life. They enjoy the rights and the freedom guaranteed by the constitution of China. They are a member of the big family of Chinese nation. This co-called genocide or forced labor–these are big lies of the century. There’s no genocide at all.”

On whether Chinese President Xi Jinping believes America’s global status is in decline:

“Nobody in China bet(s) against the United States. Everybody in China, including the Chinese leadership, believe(s) that the United States is one of the most important countries. And the relationship between China and United States is the most important relationship. We must work well at ‘don’t mess it up.'”

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{"ticker_effect":"fade","autoplay":"true","speed":3000,"font_style":"normal"}

India boosts military presence as
border talks with China remain stalled


On volatile border between India and China, a high-altitude military buildup is underway

0003

A close-up of a heliport under construction in Rutog County.

0001

On volatile border between India and China, a high-altitude military buildup is underway

0004

Construction crews are now scattered around Ladakh as Indian authorities speed up their infrastructure race with China.

0005

An overview of a heliport under construction near Aksai Chin Lake, in a region administered by China but contested by India, on May 28.

0002

An overview of a heliport under construction in Rutog County in the Ngari Prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, on Nov. 28.

0003 0001 0004 0005 0002

BEIJING’S ISLAND-BUILDING IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA

Runway

Runway

China is expanding the construction of its facilities on Fiery Cross Reef. Provided by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), this June 28, 2015 photo reveals Beijing has nearly completed a 3,000 meter (9,800-foot) airstrip, long enough to accommodate most Chinese military aircraft. Two h...

Expansion

Expansion

Reclamation on Fiery Cross Reef, which lies on the west side of the Spratly Islands, began in August of 2014 and its principal landmass was finished by November. Dredgers have created a land mass that spans the entire existing reef and is approximately 3,000 meters long and 200-300 meters wide.

Facilities

Facilities

This picture taken last November shows construction work being carried out on Fiery Cross Reef. The reef reportedly already houses a helicopter landing pad, a 300-meter-long wharf, a harbor large enough to dock military tankers, barracks and artillery emplacements.

South Johnson Reef

South Johnson Reef

This reef was one of the first facilities to finish principal land reclamation. This recent picture shows that a radar tower is nearing completion at the north end of the land mass. According to AMTI, a new large multi-level military facility has been built in the center of the island. Up to six sur...

A naval base?

A naval base?

Beginning in early 2015, Mischief Reef - also located in the Spratlys - has undergone extensive reclamation activity. Experts say that the recent widening of the southern entrance to the reef, coupled with sightings of Chinese navy vessels, may suggest a future role for the reclaimed reef as a naval...

From reef to island

From reef to island

Significant construction on Gaven Reef began in 2014, with a total of 114,000 square meters of land already created. Satellite pictures show just how fast construction has progressed on the reef. A new artificial island was created between March (left) and August (right) 2014.

Troop garrison

Troop garrison

According to AMTI, China has had a troop garrison on Gaven Reef since 2003, which has included a large supply platform where ships can dock. Experts say a new main square building in the reef appears to be an anti-aircraft tower.

A standardized process

A standardized process

As seen in this image, the basic process of expanding these features involves dredging sand from the seafloor and dumping it onto the reefs. The structure is raised above the high water line, hiding the status of the bank or reef beneath. The sand is then smoothed out and workers surround the island...

'Historic rights'

'Historic rights'

China claims most of the potentially energy-rich waterway, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The US Pacific Fleet commander recently said China was "creating a great wall of sand" in the South China Sea, causing serious concerns about its territorial intentions. Beijin...

Territorial disputes

Territorial disputes

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims, which have led to territorial disputes in the area. Last summer, China's deployment of a massive oil rig in waters also claimed by Hanoi escalated tensions in the region, sparking a standoff at sea and violent anti-C...

US concerns

US concerns

Washington is concerned China's efforts carry a military dimension that could undermine the US' naval and economic power in the Pacific, and has weighed sending warships and surveillance aircraft within 12 nautical miles of the new artificial islands. Washington has repeatedly called on Beijing and ...

Ecological impact

Ecological impact

The Philippines filed a formal plea at the UN last year, challenging Beijing's territorial claims. Manila said China's reclamation activities are causing "irreversible and widespread damage to the biodiversity and ecological balance of the South China Sea." It also claimed that the destruction of co...

Runway Expansion Facilities South Johnson Reef A naval base? From reef to island Troop garrison A standardized process 'Historic rights' Territorial disputes US concerns Ecological impact

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