China upset that U.S. forces have been training Taiwanese troops

AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

I’m guessing that this topic didn’t make it onto the agenda during Joe Biden’s recent phone call with Xi Jinping. It’s being reported today that the United States military has had a small contingent of troops, both soldiers and Marines, operating in Taiwan for the past year. The troops have reportedly been conducting training for Taiwanese troops in both ground tactics and small boat operations. Needless to say, the Chinese are not thrilled with this news and see it as a breach of longstanding agreements between America and China. To put it mildly, they’re not taking the news well. (Wall Street Journal)

A U.S. special-operations unit and a contingent of Marines have been secretly operating in Taiwan to train military forces there, U.S. officials said, part of efforts to shore up the island’s defenses as concern regarding potential Chinese aggression mounts.

About two dozen members of U.S. special-operations and support troops are conducting training for small units of Taiwan’s ground forces, the officials said. The U.S. Marines are working with local maritime forces on small-boat training. The American forces have been operating in Taiwan for at least a year, the officials said.

The U.S. special-operations deployment is a sign of concern within the Pentagon over Taiwan’s tactical capabilities in light of Beijing’s yearslong military buildup and recent threatening moves against the island.

Of course the Chinese are upset. We view this as a case of United States troops being deployed to Taiwan. Beijing sees it as American troops being deployed to China without their invitation. Viewed in the strictest of terms, China could arguably make the case that this was an act of war. And since we don’t “officially” recognize Taiwan as an independent nation under the terms of our agreement with China, it would be hard to flatly deny it.

So what does China plan to do about it? Thus far we’re not seeing anything but saber-rattling, but their officials are already suggesting that they would “crush” any foreign troops on their soil. (US News)

Why just two dozen members? Why secretly? The US should send 240 servicemen publicly, in US military uniform, and make public where they are stationed,” Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of China’s English language Global Times, considered a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote in a tweet accompanying the Journal’s article. He added of China’s military, “See whether the PLA will launch a targeted air strike to eliminate those US invaders!”

China has previously indicated it would retaliate swiftly and immediately to any indication the U.S. had deployed military forces to Taiwan. When Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, claimed without explanation in August that the U.S. had roughly 30,000 forces on Taiwan, state news in Beijing fired back that, if true, the Chinese military would “crush them by force.”

If these reports are accurate and the troops have been there “for at least a year,” that would mean that they were deployed on Donald Trump’s watch. Of course, something this sensitive would had to have been made known to Joe Biden during his briefings, either during the transition or after he took office. So we may have two administrations to hold to account for this.

While the desire to aid the Taiwanese military is understandable, this was an incredibly risky maneuver. I’m kind of shocked that they managed to keep it secret for this long. We aren’t being given much in the way of details yet, but I would hazard a guess that our troops were probably dressed in Taiwanese uniforms to make them less conspicuous. That would also be problematic in terms of normal military procedures, falling more into the category of espionage.

The reason this was so risky is that we’re used to hearing brusque threats from the Chinese Communist Party when they’re upset about something, but that’s generally just tough talk to impress their own people at home. Yet there are limits to how much the Chinese can be expected to tolerate without making a forceful response. Deploying presumably armed troops onto the island – which China has consistently maintained is their sovereign territory – may well prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. We wouldn’t tolerate China suddenly landing a battalion of troops in Key Largo.

The Chinese state media is already talking about an airstrike to “crush” our troops. I don’t think that’s a move they will make lightly, but if we insist on leaving our troops there it can’t be ruled out entirely. The other alternative would be for Joe Biden to meekly order our troops out like the boy who got caught with his and in the cookie jar. No matter whether it was Trump or Biden who sent those troops in, it was an extremely risky maneuver with very little to gain from it. No amount of training by a relative handful of U.S. troops is going to make Taiwan substantially better positioned to defeat China if the situation deteriorates into an all-out war. And if the Chines do run an airstrike and kill some of our troops, we will be forced to respond or wind up looking like a toothless paper tiger. This looks to have been a very poor decision and I don’t see a good outcome for the United State or Taiwan at this point.