China's military warns against growing threat from Taiwan 'separatists'

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(CNN) — China has warned against what it describes as a growing threat from "separatists" in Taiwan, and said it would not rule out using force against the self-governed island Beijing regards as part of its territory.

In a national defense white paper released Wednesday, China took aim at what it considers pro-independence or separatist forces in the far western region of Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, claiming they were a threat to national security and social stability.

In particular, the paper accused Taiwan's democratically-elected government of "pursuing a path of separatism" by pushing for "gradual independence," warning that China "must and will be reunited."

Taiwan has been governed separately from mainland China since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, when the defeated Nationalist government fled to the island. Beijing has repeatedly called for "reunification" with Taiwan.

According to the white paper, Taiwan's government under President Tsai Ing-wen is "intensifying hostility and confrontation and borrowing the strength of foreign influence."

The language regarding Taiwan in the white paper -- "China's National Defense in the New Era" -- was noticeably stronger compared to the last major defense report in 2015, which only fleetingly mentioned the island.

The white paper, the first such major defense policy document since Chinese President Xi Jinping began his second term in 2017, calls for greater modernization of the country's military, while emphasizing China's goal of peaceful development.

China's defense budget is one of the largest in the world, totaling just over $151 billion in 2017, according to the paper -- which is still far below that of the United States.

At a press conference Wednesday, Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian reiterated the paper's central points, declaring Taiwan independence a threat to the sovereignty of China.

"To seek Taiwan independence will get nowhere and China never allow any part of its territory to be separated," he said.

When asked about mass protests in the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong in recent weeks, Wu said that the military were watching the situation closely.

He then reminded journalists of the Hong Kong law that allows the local government to request assistance in maintaining public order from the People's Liberation Army garrison in the city, but did not suggest troops should or would be deployed in the near future.

US 'undermining global stability'

The release of the defense white paper comes after an unusually long four-day stopover by Taiwan's Tsai to the US in early July -- en route to the Caribbean -- the latest sign of warming ties between Taipei and Washington despite intense hostility from Beijing.

China criticized the US for its recent decision to sell more than $2 billion in tanks and anti-air missiles to Taiwan. It also accused the US of undermining "global stability," while saying international strategic competition was on the rise overall.

"(The US) has provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defense expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defense," the white paper said.

When asked about the recent confirmation of China hawk Mark Esper as the new US Defense Secretary, Chinese military spokesman Wu simply wished him the best and struck an optimistic tone on China-US military ties during Esper's tenure.

"But I want to emphasize ... that China's sovereignty, security and developmental interests are not to be encroached," he added.

One change to the 2019 report, compared to 2015, is the tight grip that President Xi has over China's military, with copious references appearing in the white paper to the "new era" of Xi's signature ideology.

"Guided by Xi Jinping's thinking on strengthening the military, China's national defense in the new era will stride forward along its own path to build a stronger military," the report concluded.