Taiwan’s president confirmed the presence of American service members on the island for the first time, offering a rare public acknowledgement of the extent of U.S. backing in the face of increasing Chinese military pressure.
In a CNN interview that aired on Wednesday evening Eastern Time, Tsai Ing-wen said the troops—previously reported as special forces instructors—were part of Taiwan’s various military exchanges with the U.S.
“We have a wide range of cooperation with the U.S. aiming at increasing our defense capability,” the president said. Asked for a precise number, Tsai added: “Not as many as people thought.”
Department of Defense figures show just over 30 U.S. military personnel are on the island for the purposes of securing the American Institute in Taiwan, which is the unofficial U.S. embassy in Taipei.
Speaking in parliament on Thursday morning Taipei time, Taiwan Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told lawmakers that American instructors have worked with Taiwanese forces over successive administrations. He doesn’t consider the deployment to be within the definition of a permanent U.S. military presence on the island.
For years, U.S.-Taiwan military exchanges have been thought of as an open secret—also known by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) leadership in Beijing. However, Tsai became the first Taiwanese leader in decades to publicly acknowledge the existence of a training program.
During Chiu’s appearance in front of the Taiwanese legislature’s Foreign and National Defense Committee, more than one lawmaker pressed the defense chief on China’s likely reaction.
In Beijing the same morning, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters: “We firmly oppose official exchanges and military contact of any kind between the United States and the Taiwan region.”
In an editorial, China’s Communist Party-owned newspaper Global Times said Tsai’s confirmation was “inviting trouble.”
Despite the sensitive nature of U.S. assistance in the training of Taiwanese forces, such programs remain within the scope of Washington’s unofficial relationship with Taipei, which is guided by a central piece of American legislation known as the Taiwan Relations Act.
Supply of Defensive Arms
Provisions of the TRA—passed in 1979 and supported by then Senator Joe Biden—allow the U.S. to supply Taiwan with the necessary defensive arms and services to defend itself.
In comments to Newsweek earlier this month, Pentagon spokesperson John Supple didn’t confirm specific military operations in Taiwan, but noted: “The U.S. defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act and based on an assessment of Taiwan’s defense needs and the threat posed by the PRC, as has been the case for more than 40 years.”
Supple said U.S. support and the “defense relationship with Taiwan remains aligned against the current threat posed by the [PRC].”
The TRA, however, is not an explicit guarantee of military assistance in the event of war across the Taiwan Strait. The official American position of “strategic ambiguity”—maintained for over four decades—is deliberately vague about a potential armed response on the part of the U.S.
But during a CNN town hall last week, Biden surprised viewers as well as host Anderson Cooper when he answered “yes” to a question about whether he would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack. The president said the U.S. had a “commitment” to Taiwan’s defense, in remarks quickly walked back by the White House less than an hour later.
China Will Be Listening
Senior policy analysts say while it’s objectively untrue that the U.S. has any legal commitment to defend Taiwan, Biden’s comments at least display staunch personal intent, and Beijing will be listening.
“People have different interpretations of what President Biden has said,” Taiwan’s President Tsai said in her interview—the first to international media in nearly two years since her landslide re-election in January 2020.
Asked whether she had faith in American military assistance in a hypothetical cross-strait conflict, she added: “I do have faith, given the long-term relationship that we have with the U.S., and also the support of the people of the U.S. as well as the Congress.”
Tsai said the people of Taiwan are aware of the threats they face. “We have to get ourselves better prepared, but we’re not panicked, we’re not anxious,” she added.
Taiwan would defend itself for “as long as we can,” she told CNN. “But let me reiterate, it’s important that we have the support of our friends, and also like-minded countries.”
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