[Column] Why US forces are ‘back’ in Taiwan now

Posted on : 2021-10-12 17:40 KST Modified on : 2021-10-12 17:40 KST
By picking this moment to announce its military presence in Taiwan, the US appears to be sending a message to Beijing about its stoking of tensions with Taiwan
graphic provided by Jaewoogy.com
graphic provided by Jaewoogy.com

During the early 1950s, the Taiwan Strait was in a state of war. Mao Zedong’s strategy was to achieve unification by force, and in September 1954 the Chinese military conducted a sustained, large-scale shelling of the Kinmen Islands, located between China’s Fujian Province and Taiwan’s main island.

In response, the US and Taiwan signed a mutual defense treaty on Dec. 2 of that year, and US troops were stationed in Taiwan. A US military base was built, and nuclear missiles were even deployed.

During the Vietnam War, around 30,000 US troops were reportedly stationed in Taiwan. While China was suffering a crisis in 1962 after the failure of its Great Leap Forward, Taiwanese leader Chiang Kai-shek even prepared for an armed “recovery of the mainland.” Not wanting a clash with the People’s Republic, the US dissuaded him from attacking.

After the US and China established diplomatic relations in 1979, the US and Taiwan severed diplomatic ties, and US forces were officially withdrawn from the island. The old US military command headquarters in Taipei now functions as a museum.

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal published a report quoting a US government official saying that around 20 US special forces troops and marines had been training the Taiwanese armed forces on the island for over a year. But is that really the first US military activity in Taiwan since troops were pulled out in 1979?

Some members of the military have been deployed for defense duties with the American Institute in Taiwan, which operates as a de facto US embassy. A substantial US military presence is also needed to operate and maintain the weapons that the US has sold to Taiwan.

The Economist estimated that between 3,500 and 4,000 US Defense Department officials have visited Taiwan each year. In November 2020, the Taiwanese navy revealed that special forces with the US marines had been training Taiwanese special forces at a base in southern Taiwan to prepare for a possible invasion by China. Taiwan’s United Daily News quoted a retired navy vice admiral saying there were around 300 to 450 US troops in Taiwan.

The real “news” in the latest report, then, is not that the US military has been training the Taiwanese military; it’s that the US government shared that information with the US press. Why should that report have come at this particular time?

The Chinese military has been engaging in ongoing shows of force, sending 149 fighters and bombers to intrude into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone over a four-day period beginning on Oct. 1. In remarks on Wednesday, Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng voiced concerns about the developments, saying that China “may complete preparations for a full-scale invasion of Taiwan by 2025.”

China has been waging a pressure campaign to undermine morale in the Taiwanese armed forces and promote an idea among the Taiwanese public that resisting the People’s Republic is futile.

By picking this moment to announce its military presence in Taiwan, the US appears to be signaling to Beijing to quit raising tensions, while also watching to see how it responds.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has stated that China-US relations were established “on the premise of the three principles, namely, the US should sever ‘diplomatic relations’ and abrogate the ‘mutual defense treaty’ with the Taiwan authorities and withdraw US military forces from Taiwan.” It has also insisted that the US cut off its weapon sales and military ties to Taiwan.

On the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution this Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping asserted that China will “advance peaceful national reunification.” In response, Taiwanese President Tsai Ying-wen said Taiwan would “continue to bolster our national defense and demonstrate our determination to defend ourselves.”

Nobody has any way of knowing whether China will indeed attempt to unify with Taiwan by force, or whether the US will attempt a military intervention if Taiwan is attacked. What is clear, however, is that military tensions around the Taiwan Strait are growing, as is the threat of an accidental clash erupting.

During the South Korea-US summit last May, the issue of “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” was mentioned, and South Korean Air Force aircraft passed through Taiwanese airspace during their “Operation Miracle” to rescue people from Afghanistan who had supported South Korea in the past. The tensions around Taiwan aren’t something that has nothing to do with South Korea.

By Park Min-hee, editorial writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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