China's foreign ministry has delivered a stern warning to a Western journalist over his choice of language relating to Taiwan – however his employer is standing firm.
It was one word in particular that riled spokesperson Zhao Lijian when a Reuters journalist questioned him on Taiwan's annual military and naval exercises, which saw President Tsai Ing-wen board a naval warship for only the second time in her six years in office and praise their capabilities and efforts.
Yet Mr Zhao refuted Ms Tsai's title, urging the journalist to watch his wording.
"I need to make it clear first that there is no so-called “president” in Taiwan. Please pay attention to the term you use," he said at Tuesday's daily briefing.
Not recognising Taiwan's independence, China's state media and the Communist Party of China only refer to Ms Tsai as regional leader.
The military drills Ms Tsai attended, which simulate the repulsion of an invading force, coincide with air-raid exercises across the island as it boosts combat preparedness in the face of rising military pressure from China.
Beijing's growing assertiveness towards the island it claims as its own, combined with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, have renewed debate about how to boost defence and prompted authorities to step up preparations in the event of a Chinese attack.
Taiwan has repeatedly rebuffed China's remarks revealing its intentions to unify the island, and has expressed its desire to remain an independent democratic state, while the majority of its 24 million population has indicated it supports independence.
Recognising Taiwan as a nation has proven to be a difficult decision for media outlets who often face a wave of outrage from nationalistic Chinese nationals. The United Nations' decision not to recognise Taiwan as a separate country, particularly during the pandemic, has also proven complicated.
The flexing of Taiwan's military muscle, a tactic China itself is all too accustomed with, also prompted a warning from Mr Zhao.
"I also want to take this opportunity to make it clear to the Taiwan authorities that the path of “Taiwan independence” will lead to a dead end. If Taiwan wants to confront the mainland militarily, it will only find it futile and doomed to fail."
Reuters defends use of 'president'
Mr Zhao has developed a reputation as a no-nonsense, nationalistic official and his latest sharp-tongued delivery was warmly welcomed on Chinese social media site Weibo where a hashtag related to the reporter's dressing down garnered more than seven million views.
Users described Mr Zhao as "so cool", "handsome" and a "male god".
The journalist, who asked the question in English, was branded "incompetent" and one Weibo user accused the news agency of "talking nonsense to gain attention".
A Reuters spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia it has long referred to Ms Tsai as president and will continue to.
"We refer to Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan's president because that is the title of the office that she holds," they said.
"We have referred to her as president since she was elected to this post and have done so with officials elected to the same post in the past.”
Taiwan officially refers to its head of state as a president, with Ms Tsai being appointed in 2016 as the nation's first female president.
China could be trying to deter Taiwan relations, expert says
Wen-Ti Sung, sessional lecturer in Taiwan Studies at the Australian National University, told Yahoo News Australia Beijing prefers to use leader as a way to describe Ms Tsai as it is a much looser term which can also be given to school principals or mayors for example.
"Beijing does not recognise the legitimacy of the 'government' of Taiwan, so it dismisses any wording that confers 'central government' level status to Taiwan," he said.
"The Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department has an official media guide on the politically correct wordings on sensitive topics such as Taiwan. Zhao Lijian's recent statement is in line with that."
Mr Sung said Mr Zhao, and the foreign ministry, could be rejecting the use of president to "posture and deter what it sees as growing international interests in, and interactions with, Taiwan."
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