US military forces have been present in Chinese Taipei for more than a decade to train the Taiwanese on hardware acquisitions and to help them in “repelling Chinese landings” in an event of a military confrontation, a new report has revealed.
A review of the US Department of Defense data by American news publication, Foreign Policy, indicates that Washington’s troop presence on the self-ruled island dates back to at least September 2008 — the last year of the administration of former president George Bush.
“If you’re focused on hardening Taiwan, what’s more hardening than resisting an amphibious invasion?” a former US official is quoted as saying by the publication.
“It was just a logical progression to what was happening,” he adds.
According to the unnamed official, US troops working out of the American Institute in Taiwan have been conducting “beach walks” with the Taiwanese forces for years to help pinpoint areas to fortify against Chinese landings.
The last officially recognized US troops left the Chinese Taipei in 1979, as Washington began operating under a ‘One China’ policy, which asserts China’s sovereignty over the self-ruled island.
Almost all world countries recognize that sovereignty. The US, too, recognizes that policy, but has long courted Taipei in an attempt to unnerve its main rival, Beijing.
China has offered a ‘one country, two systems’ model of autonomy to Taipei, much like the system with Hong Kong, but the island has rejected that.
The US is the island's largest weapons supplier and an avid backer of its secessionist president Tsai Ing-wen, who has made modernizing the island’s armed forces a priority, including developing a fleet of new submarines, buying new F-16 fighter jets from the United States and upgrading its warships.
She acknowledged last month that a small number of US forces were stationed in the island to train Taiwanese soldiers.
US trainers have been present in the island for decades, but the shift under former US President Donald Trump — which has continued under his Democrat successor Joe Biden — has seen increased deployment of US troops, including special forces, two people familiar with the matter told the US publication.
Trump’s last two national security advisors touted a so-called porcupine strategy, aimed at making Taiwan a pricklier target with more coastal defense cruise missiles encircling the island, said the report.
In June, the Defense Manpower Data Center’s tracking numbers picked up 30 active-duty troops and 15 Pentagon civilians serving on the island, headlined by 23 Marines, a tally that does not appear to include the Army Special Forces unit that is training in Chinese Taipei.
That is an increase from around 20 troops for most of 2020, which itself was more than around 10 troops during the Trump administration.
The number of Pentagon civilians on the island remained at around 15 people throughout that period of time, according to the data cited by Foreign Policy
News of the deployment has raised concern among many US lawmakers, including Democrats, who have warned about escalating tensions in the region.
Democrat representative Elaine Luria warned that in a worst-case scenario, a surprise Chinese attack on the island could catch three dozen US Marines and Special Forces off guard.
“Like everyone else I was very surprised to learn of the presence of US forces in Taiwan,” she is quoted as saying in the report. “Why was this decision made to put forces there? So if we talk about something that’s escalatory … [it] would be to actually increase or even continue the presence of US forces on Taiwan.”
The Democrat representative said she will seek answers from the US Defense Department about the Trump administration’s initial decision to ramp up the deployment.
China has repeatedly warned that the US military presence in the island could spark tensions and drive them to the brink of war.
Biden in recent months publicly affirmed his administration’s commitment to defend the Chinese Taipei from Beijing.
Both times, the White House walked his comments back, admitting that no such formal obligation exists.
Citing current and former officials, Foreign Policy said that the Biden administration, however, has proven more cautious about rocking the boat than the Trump administration.
Last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said "the negative words and deeds” of the US related to Chinese Taipei have “encouraged the blatancy of Taiwanese secessionists".
Beijing has often emphasized that the issue of Chinese Taipei is a red line that must not be crossed.