Chinese President Xi Jinping gave the opening address Monday during the closing ceremony of the National People's Congress. Photo by Mark R. Cristino / EPA-EFE
March 13 (UPI) -- In a defiant speech to open his third term, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to strengthen his military and take steps toward "reunification" with Taiwan after decades of tensions with the United States over the sovereignty of the small island.
Xi gave the address Monday during the closing ceremony of the National People's Congress as he said that China must "build the People's Liberation Army into a great wall of steel that effectively safeguards national sovereignty, security, and development interests."
"China should work to achieve greater self-reliance and strength in science and technology, promote industrial transformation," he said, outlining his plans after being re-elected to a third five-year term which makes him China's longest-serving ruler.
Xi's speech also lashed out at "bullying foreign powers" that were working to stifle the Chinese economy and exert more influence throughout Asia.
"The Chinese people have become the masters of their own destiny," he said, referring to "reunifying" with Taiwan. "The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has entered an irreversible historical process."
The tough talk comes as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was planning to meet with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen in California next month, and as U.S. relations with Beijing have reached a boiling point following several weeks of increased tensions.
A week ago, Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang suggested an inevitable conflict would develop between the world's two biggest superpowers unless Washington changed its stance toward China. The issue of Taiwan remained key to resolving the deepening rift, while U.S. military support of the democratic territory had become the No. 1 threat to China's security in the region, Qin noted.
In his speech Monday, the 69-year-old Xi echoed that stance while also calling for the expansion and modernization of the country's military.
"It is necessary to ... enhance the ability to maintain national security," Xi said after thanking the loyalist body for reappointing him.
"This is my third time assuming the lofty position as president. The trust of the people is the biggest driving force for me to move forward, and also a heavy responsibility on my shoulders," he said.
Beijing views Taiwan, which was occupied by China in the 1940s, as a wayward province that it has vowed to retake by force, if necessary. Under Xi's rule, China has increasingly raised the stakes by exerting more sanctions and military pressure on the self-governing island of 23 million people.
"We must... actively promote peaceful development of cross-strait relations, firmly oppose interference of external forces and Taiwan's separatist activities, and resolutely advance the process of national reunification," Xi said as thousands inside the Great Hall of the People erupted in applause. "Security is the foundation for development, stability is the prerequisite for prosperity."
Tensions over Taiwan reached a boiling point in February when China sent 18 warplanes and four naval vessels to surround the small island after the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps held joint exercises in the South China Sea.
Last August, then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., infuriated Beijing when she visited Taipei, a move that led Xi to order large-scale military exercises in the waters and airspace around the island in response.
U.S. President Joe Biden has also aggravated Beijing by saying that U.S. forces would defend Taiwan militarily against an attempted invasion by China, an assertion he has made several times so far throughout his administration.
Earlier this month, Beijing officials emphasized an urgent need to boost the Chinese military budget to "fulfill its responsibility as a major country."
The call was notable as it came in the days after Biden ordered the U.S. military to shoot down a Chinese surveillance balloon after it drifted across the country for several days.
China's annual military budget in 2023 was estimated to grow by more than 7% to roughly the equivalent of $224 billion.
Previously, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan warned Beijing against sending weapons to Russia amid speculation that China was preparing to help Russia militarily in Ukraine.
China has so far remained on the sidelines of the war after signing a "no limits" partnership agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin weeks before the invasion began.
Administration officials have continued to express hope for improved diplomacy although several Congressional panels were continuing to investigate the growing threat to U.S. interests posed by China and Russia.