US troops have been stationed in Taiwan for at least a year

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WASHINGTON – A US special forces unit and contingent of Marines are clandestinely operating in Taiwan to train military personnel, US officials said as part of efforts to shore up the island’s defenses amid concerns about potential Chinese aggression.

About two dozen members of US special operations and support forces are training small units of Taiwan’s ground forces, officials said. The U.S. Marines are working with local naval forces to train small boats. The American forces have been in Taiwan for at least a year, officials said.

The use of US special operations is a sign of concern in the Pentagon over Taiwan’s tactical capabilities given Beijing’s years of military build-up and recent threatening moves against the island.

Taiwan and US officials have raised concerns over nearly 150 Chinese military aircraft flights near Taiwan in the past week. Chinese aircraft included J-16 jet fighters, H-6 strategic bombers and Y-8 submarine reconnaissance planes and have set a record for such operations, according to the Taiwanese government.

The Chinese flights not entering what Taiwan defines as its airspace have brought to mind the Communist Party’s view of Taiwan as part of China. Beijing has vowed to take over the island by force if necessary. Senior US military officials testified earlier this year that Beijing is likely to attempt to use force in its plans against Taiwan for the next six years. Other officials said China’s schedule could be earlier.

Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng warned on Wednesday that China could launch a full attack on Taiwan with minimal losses by 2025.

Taiwan and China have had an unstable coexistence for more than seven decades, and concerns are growing that China might take action against Taiwan to force unification. Gerald F. Seib of the WSJ explains some of the reasons for concern. Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann

White House and Pentagon officials declined to comment on the use of US forces. There was no immediate response to requests for comments from Taipei. The deployment is on a rotation, according to the US officials, which means that the members of the US units serve on a variable schedule.

The Chinese State Department has urged the US to stick to previous agreements and stop providing military aid to Taiwan. “China will take all necessary steps to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” it said.

Asian media reports from last year suggesting a possible US Navy operation in Taiwan have never been confirmed by US officials. The presence of US special forces has not yet been reported.

The Special Forces and Marine Contingent are a small but symbolic attempt by the US to build Taipei’s confidence in building its defenses against potential Chinese aggression. Current and former US government officials and military experts believe that deepening ties between US and Taiwanese military units is better than just selling Taiwanese military equipment.

The US has sold billions of dollars in military hardware to Taiwan in recent years, but current and former officials believe Taiwan needs to invest more and smarter in its defense.

“Taiwan has seriously neglected its national defense for the first 15 years or so of this century, buying too much expensive equipment that is destroyed in the first hours of a conflict, and not enough cheaper but deadly systems – anti-ship missiles, intelligent ones Sea mines and well-trained reserve and auxiliary forces could seriously complicate Beijing’s war plans, ”said Matt Pottinger, a distinguished visiting scholar at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution who served as deputy national security advisor during the Trump administration.

Chinese military aircraft that have flown near Taiwan include H-6 bombers like this one, Taipei authorities said.


Photo:

Taiwan Ministry of Defense / Shutterstock

Mr. Pottinger said Taiwan’s general military spending is similar to that of Singapore, which has a quarter of the Taiwanese population and “which China doesn’t have on its neck”. Mr. Pottinger said he was not aware of any US troops deployed to Taiwan.

In May, Christopher Maier, who later became assistant secretary of defense for special operations, said during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Forces Committee that the US should urgently consider deploying such troops to help Taiwan strengthen its capabilities. Mr Maier, who worked at the Pentagon under the Trump administration, didn’t say that special forces already operate there.

Maier told the senators in May that American special forces could show troops in Taiwan how to defend against an amphibious landing or train dozens of other operations needed to defend the island.

“I think this is something that we should bear heavily in when we think about competition across the different skills we can apply,” he said at the time, referring to special forces.

While some aspects of the U.S. operation could be classified, it is also viewed as politically sensitive given the strained U.S.-China relationship, U.S. officials said.

Relations between the US and China are strained due to trade, the Covid-19 pandemic, human rights and regional security, including in the South China Sea. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi in Zurich on Wednesday.

China is likely to view the presence of US forces as a violation of Washington’s obligations under previous agreements. In 1979, in establishing formal ties between the US and China, Washington agreed to sever formal ties with Taiwan, terminate a defense agreement, and withdraw its troops from the island. The US later said it would reduce arms sales to Taiwan.

Referring to the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by Congress in 1979, a Pentagon spokesman said the law provides an assessment of Taiwan’s defense needs and the threats posed by the People’s Republic of China.

“I would like to note that the PRC has stepped up efforts to intimidate and pressure Taiwan, including increasing military activity near Taiwan, which we believe is destabilizing and increasing the risk of misjudgment,” said spokesman John Supple in a statement.

The Trump administration relaxed rules restricting US officials’ contacts with Taiwan, which was welcomed by Taiwanese officials at the time. The restrictions restricted exchanges between the US and Taiwan to avoid provoking China.

The Biden government continued some of the steps taken by its predecessor, sending a US delegation to Taipei in April.

Before leaving office, the Trump administration cleared the US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, a ten-page document that broadly outlines the goals for the region.

A section on Taiwan said China will “take increasingly decisive steps to force unification with Taiwan,” recommending that the US “allow Taiwan to develop an effective asymmetrical defense strategy and capabilities that will help its Security, freedom from coercion, resilience and ability to guarantee ”. Engage China on its own terms. ”

The strategy also calls for a “credible combat” US military presence to prevent Chinese dominance in the area that includes Taiwan.

The document has not been replaced by a new Biden management strategy, nor is it technically implemented. Biden government officials have acknowledged that there are areas of continuity in policy on China between the two governments.

Write to Gordon Lubold at [email protected]

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