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Taiwan is caught in the middle of escalating tensions between the U.S. and China


Secretary of State Antony Blinken says China is speeding up its plans to seize Taiwan. His remarks come as China's party congress prepares to give Xi Jinping a third term in power. As Emily Feng reports from Taiwan, the growing tensions between the U.S. and China will be one of Xi's biggest challenges.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: In previous years, party congresses took a hopeful tone when China's economy and global status were rising. Not so much this year. Xi Jinping is warning of turbulent times ahead. First up, China's conducted live-fire military drills all around Taiwan in August. But rather than intimidating the Taiwanese, Chinese aggression pushed the Taiwanese into supporting more anti-China policies. Taiwanese lawmaker Freddy Lim says the island is now preparing for the worst.

FREDDY LIM: (Through interpreter) The war in Ukraine gave us initial motivation. And then with the global situation, the world is asking Taiwan, are we prepared for war? Because we cannot predict the behavior of an autocrat.

FENG: And that autocrat is Xi Jinping. And at the same time, there's a rivalry between the U.S. and China, where the two countries see each other's ambitions as fundamentally opposed. William Klein used to be a senior U.S. diplomat posted in Beijing until last year. He's now a partner at consulting firm FGS Global.

WILLIAM KLEIN: I saw a growing concern from a Chinese perspective that the United States truly had the intention to disrupt China's modernization aspirations, to contain China, even under the Trump administration, to challenge the legitimacy of Communist Party rule in China.

FENG: This month, the U.S. imposed sweeping export bans on China, preventing it from obtaining any U.S. technology that could help it make or design the most advanced semiconductor chips, kneecapping one of the country's key technological areas. Mike Mazarr, a political analyst at U.S. government think tank RAND, says these export bans are concrete confirmation the U.S. is trying to contain China's rise.

MIKE MAZARR: It's just sort of an open-ended statement that, we perceive you as so dangerous that we are not going to conspire in allowing you to reach - to become one of the leading - world-leading semiconductor manufacturers.

FENG: Meanwhile, at the party congress, Xi Jinping gave a speech where he was resolutely unapologetic about the path his country is pursuing, which appears to show that China won't change its behavior despite U.S. pressure. These hardening attitudes indicate there are few off-ramps to diffuse U.S.-China tension.

JESSICA CHEN WEISS: I don't see the kind of endgame.

FENG: That's Jessica Chen Weiss, a political science professor at Cornell University and former senior policy adviser to the U.S. State Department.

WEISS: Right now, we have a lot of efforts underway to slow China down. But what's not clear under what conditions that - is there anything that China could do differently?

FENG: Meaning by punishing China for what it's done wrong, the U.S. hasn't given China an idea of what it could do right to better the relationship. Here's Robert Daly, China director at U.S. think tank the Wilson Center.

ROBERT DALY: No one has articulated a framework that seems feasible in which a powerful, prosperous United States can work constructively with a powerful, prosperous China that is still led by the Chinese Communist Party.

FENG: And despite all its beef with China, the U.S. is losing on-the-ground expertise in the country, partly because China's closed borders have stopped many Americans from traveling there.

DALY: We've lost the more humanistic lens, and we're seeing China almost entirely through a security lens instead.

FENG: And when countries don't understand one another, Daly says, they tend to make the worst-case assumptions.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.