A new report from The Wall Street Journal says that contingents of U.S. special operations forces and U.S. Marines have been making more regular rotational deployments to Taiwan for at least a year now. This news comes a day after Chiu Kuo Cheng, the island’s defense minister, said publicly that Chinese forces would be capable of launching a “full-scale” invasion operation across the Taiwan Strait with far fewer risks than they face now by 2025.
Approximately 24 American special operators and other supporting forces are apparently on the island now, “conducting training for small units of Taiwan’s ground forces,” according to the Journal‘s story, which was published earlier today. An unspecified number of Marines are also there “working with local maritime forces on small-boat training,” the outlet reported. It’s not entirely clear from the piece whether or not there has been a permanent or even semi-permanent U.S. military presence on the island for the last year or more.
The Journal noted that there had been reports last November about a deployment of Marine Raiders to Taiwan, which the island’s Naval Command reportedly confirmed at the time. The Taiwanese Ministry of Defense subsequently declined to further confirm or deny the presence of those forces. A Pentagon spokesperson also told Stars and Stripes that those reports were “inaccurate,” but did not elaborate on what specific details were incorrect.
“The presence of U.S. special operations forces hasn’t been previously reported,” the Journal’s piece incorrectly states. Last June, The War Zone, among others, reported on the emergence of an official U.S Army video, a screen capture from which is seen earlier in this story, showing Green Berets taking part in one iteration of a regular series of Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) exercises on the island, nicknamed Balance Tamper. That video was subsequently taken down. Another report in 2017 also said that U.S. Special Operations Command had released documents showing at least one other deployment of special operations forces to Taiwan the year before.
JCETs are very small training engagements that typically involve between 10 and 40 American personnel and focus heavily on practicing general skill sets, as well as exchanging relevant tactics, techniques, and procedures, primarily with other allied and partner special operations forces around the world. This would be well in line with the Journal‘s reporting of how many American special operators are currently in Taiwan and what they are doing.
The Journal‘s story also makes no note of an unconfirmed report earlier this year that American forces, possibly from the U.S. Army’s 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade, or 5th SFAB, were present at a Taiwanese training base in the town of Hukou in the island’s northern Hsinchu County. There are presently six SFABs within the Army and Army National Guard, which provide dedicated conventional advisory forces. The 5th SFAB, based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, is focused on supporting security force assistance missions in the Indo-Pacific region. It’s also possible that, if this report of American personnel in Hukou is true, they could be U.S. special operators or Marines.
Whatever the exact American force composition in Taiwan is at present and what their assigned tasks might be, the presence of special operators and Marines all makes good sense, as The War Zone
has explained in the past. U.S. Army Special Forces units, in particular, are trained to support unconventional warfare campaigns that involve working with or otherwise supporting local forces behind enemy lines during a major conflict.
In May, Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, had advocated for increased cooperation between U.S. special operations forces and the Taiwanese military, during a confirmation hearing for Christopher Maier, then the nominee to become the next Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. Hawley specifically cited how the American special operations community has engaged in recent years with the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to counter Russian aggression as a potential model for working with Taiwanese troops going forward.
“I do think that is something that we should be considering strongly as we think about competition across the span of different capabilities we can apply, [special operations forces] being a key contributor to that,” Maier, who was subsequently confirmed, said in response. He made no indication at the time that such cooperation was already occurring.
Small boat operations, like the ones the Journal says Marines have been training Taiwanese forces to conduct, would also almost certainly be an important component of any future cross-strait conflict. The Marines themselves have been exploring ways to expand the versatility and flexibility of units using small boats recently, including use rubber rafts as launch platforms for anti-tank guided missiles, developments that The War Zone
has been following closely.
Though there is no confirmation that elements of the 5th SFAB have been to Taiwan in the past year or so, that would be unsurprising, as well. SFAB detachments could provide a variety of valuable advisory support to the Taiwanese military, including helping units prepare to receive various new U.S.-made weapon systems. The U.S. government has approved an array of arms sales to the government in Taipei in recent years, including advanced Block 70 F-16C/D Viper fighter jets, MQ-9B drones, ground-launched Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and much more. Army training teams could be particularly well suited to support Taiwan’s future fielding of things like M1A2T Abrams tanks and M109A6 Paladin 155mm self-propelled howitzers.
Even a small number of American troops in Taiwan on a routine basis could have a deterrent effect due to the potential for any hostile action on the part of the Chinese government to kill U.S. personnel. Any such deaths would, in turn, all but certainly draw a very different kind of response from the U.S. government and possibly trigger mutual defense obligations on the part of America’s allies. A larger force, especially one that is deployed continually, could have an even greater impact on China’s decision-making.
It’s also worth mentioning that a strategic framework document for the Indo-Pacific region that the outgoing Trump Administration declassified in January specifically mentioned efforts to “enable Taiwan to develop an effective asymmetric defense strategy and capabilities that will help ensure its security, freedom from coercion, resilience, and ability to engage China on its own terms.” That same document also warned that “China will take increasingly assertive steps to compel unification with Taiwan,” something that has only become more apparent since then.
“With regards to staging an attack on Taiwan, they currently have the ability. But [China] has to pay the price,” Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo Cheng said yesterday. He warned that, by 2025, that price could be substantially lower, increasing the prospect of a “full-scale” invasion of the island.
The Chinese government views Taiwan as a rogue province and has repeatedly threatened to use military force to prevent authorities there from formally declaring independence from the mainland. Over the past year, the People’s Liberation Army has dramatically stepped up provocative aerial activity around the island, as well as an increasing number of naval maneuvers, all of which send clear signals to Taiwanese officials and their international partners. The Taiwanese Ministry of Defense says that Chinese warplanes have flown 150 sorties into international airspace within the southwestern corner of its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) just this month.
“China will take all necessary steps to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the country’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement in response to questions from The Wall Street
Journal regarding the presence of American troops on the island.
“See whether the PLA will launch a targeted airstrike to eliminate those US invaders!” Hu Xijin, the firebrand Editor-in-Chief of the Global Times newspaper, which is run by the Chinese Communist Party, also wrote on Twitter in response to the Journal‘s story. Hu had previously Tweeted that “If it is true… Chinese military forces will immediately launch a war to eliminate and expel the US soldiers” after Senator John Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, falsely asserted that there were 30,000 American troops on Taiwan in a separate, now-deleted post on that social media site.
The U.S. government currently technically has a “One-China Policy” that had recognizes the regime in Beijing as the sole legitimate authority in the country since 1979. At the same time, it reserves the right to engage with Taiwanese officials and support the island’s military until such time as its final status has been conclusively resolved. An ostensibly unofficial U.S. delegation traveled to Taiwan in April, at the prompting of President Joe Biden, where they reiterated America’s commitment to the Taiwanese military, among other things. A separate Congressional delegation arrived on the island on a U.S. Air Force C-17A Globemaster III transport plane for a separate visit in June.
If The Wall Street Journal‘s reporting that the U.S. military has had an increasingly regular presence in Taiwan in the past year is accurate, it would only further underscore America’s continued support for the government in Taipei in the face of rising tensions with the mainland. The increasing emergence of details about U.S. military engagements with their Taiwanese counterparts over the past year or so is notable in itself and seems clearly meant to send a signal to authorities in Beijing. The Pentagon has already declared China to be its current “pacing threat” and the U.S. military, as a whole, is increasingly focused on preparing for a potential major conflict with and otherwise deterring China in the Indo-Pacific region, in general.
The White House said yesterday that Biden will hold a virtual meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping before the end of the year, which will almost certainly touch on these and many other issues. That announcement came after National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with Yang Jiechi, a senior Chinese foreign policy adviser, in Zurich, Switzerland.
In the meantime, the Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, does appear to be taking a more proactive stance to challenge Chinese ambitions regarding Taiwan, and doing so more publicly, though how this strategy may actually impact the situation on both sides of the Taiwan Strait very much remains to be seen.
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