WASHINGTON -- The U.S. has not denied reports that it has sent troops to train military forces in Taiwan for at least a year, working to bolster the island's ability to defend itself amid growing concerns of an armed conflict with China.
Marines and a special operations unit have been training ground and maritime forces there on rotational deployments, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. A Pentagon spokesman did not deny the training of Taiwan's forces when asked, declining to comment on "specific operations, engagements or training."
China "has stepped up efforts to intimidate and pressure Taiwan, including increasing military activities conducted in the vicinity of Taiwan ... which we believe are destabilizing and increase the risk of miscalculation," the spokesman said.
This move toward signaling U.S. involvement in Taiwan's defense seems intended to curb recent provocations by China that have ratcheted up tensions around the Taiwan Strait.
"My understanding is that the United States has been doing training like this for many years. We just don't publicize it," a former senior U.S. military official said. The Pentagon had dismissed similar reports last November of planned exercises involving U.S. Marines in southern Taiwan as "inaccurate."
This week's non-denial came just days after a record number of Chinese incursions into Taiwanese airspace. A total of 56 warplanes entered Taiwan's air defense identification zone on Monday, a single-day high, bringing the total for the first four days of this month to 149.
"We are making every effort to defend our national sovereignty and our people as well as maintaining regional peace," Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang told reporters Friday when asked about the reported training. "We are doing all we can and we appreciate like-minded countries working together."
The U.S. withdrew its forces from Taiwan in 1979 when Washington established diplomatic relations with Beijing. But the Taiwan Relations Act passed that year stipulated that America would "enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability," specifically mentioning "defense services" such as training.
Washington has openly provided defense support to Taipei for decades, mainly through arms sales. But with China's rapid military expansion in recent years and its increasingly provocative behavior around Taiwan, Washington may have seen a need to prepare local forces in case the situation deteriorated into actual conflict.
"[The report] suggests to me that the focus is really on improving the military operational skills of Taiwan’s forces," particularly in "repelling invading forces on the beach," said Jacob Stokes, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
The reported U.S. military presence in Taiwan has angered Beijing. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Friday urged Washington to "stop arms sales to and military ties with Taiwan to avoid seriously damaging China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait."
Beyond Beijing's usual protectiveness of what it considers a "core interest," U.S. troops in the area -- even if present only for training purposes -- pose a problem for Beijing should a conflict erupt, as they provide immediate additional firepower to Taipei.
"I think we should be doing more [training] in Taiwan, but also in the United States," a former senior U.S. military official said, adding that the hope is that "we would do it very quietly and not publicize it." Giving China an opening to justify further cranking up the pressure on Taipei would risk further escalating cross-strait tensions.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are unlikely to find common ground on Taiwan in their planned virtual summit this year. Senior American officials expressed concern about the Taiwan situation to Chinese counterparts during a meeting in June, but Beijing said Washington should stop meddling in China's domestic affairs.