Deep Dive

The U.S. Is Getting Taiwan Ready to Fight on the Beaches

Biden continues Trump’s “porcupine strategy” to harden the island’s defenses.

U.S. seaman Xi Chan in the Taiwan Strait
U.S. seaman Xi Chan stands lookout on the flight deck of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry as it transits the Taiwan Strait during routine underway operations on April 23, 2020. Ensign Samuel Hardgrove/U.S. Navy

U.S. military forces have been present in Taiwan for more than a decade, according to multiple people familiar with the deployments and a review of Defense Department data by Foreign Policy.

According to a Foreign Policy review of Pentagon data produced by the Defense Manpower Data Center, an in-house Pentagon organization, the United States has kept small contingents of troops on the island dating back to at least September 2008—the last year of the George W. Bush administration. The numbers also show a small surge of U.S. Marines to Taiwan earlier this year, consistent with the Wall Street Journal’s earlier reporting about American training of Taiwanese boat patrols.

The U.S. military presence on the island is part of an effort stretching over several administrations to bolster Taiwan’s ability to fight off any potential Chinese invasion, but it also risks further inflaming tensions between Washington and Beijing. U.S. and Taiwanese policymakers are already wary of a Chinese lunge across the Taiwan Strait sometime this decade.

U.S. military forces have been present in Taiwan for more than a decade, according to multiple people familiar with the deployments and a review of Defense Department data by Foreign Policy.

According to a Foreign Policy review of Pentagon data produced by the Defense Manpower Data Center, an in-house Pentagon organization, the United States has kept small contingents of troops on the island dating back to at least September 2008—the last year of the George W. Bush administration. The numbers also show a small surge of U.S. Marines to Taiwan earlier this year, consistent with the Wall Street Journal’s earlier reporting about American training of Taiwanese boat patrols.

The U.S. military presence on the island is part of an effort stretching over several administrations to bolster Taiwan’s ability to fight off any potential Chinese invasion, but it also risks further inflaming tensions between Washington and Beijing. U.S. and Taiwanese policymakers are already wary of a Chinese lunge across the Taiwan Strait sometime this decade.

The program to train Taiwanese troops is part of low-level exchanges that allow units to come from the island to train under the watch of soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines—including a rotation of pilots who train on F-16s at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, one of the Air Force’s major training bases. The last officially recognized U.S. troops left Taiwan in 1979, as Washington began operating under a “One China” policy that acknowledges that Beijing believes Taiwan is a part of China while treating Taipei’s status as unresolved.

U.S. trainers have been present for decades, mostly to train Taiwanese troops on purchases of U.S. military hardware. But the shift under former U.S. President Donald Trump—which has continued under his successor, Joe Biden—has seen the deployment of more U.S. troops, including Special Forces, not only to train the Taiwanese on hardware acquisitions but to help them prepare for scenarios that include repelling Chinese landings, according to two people familiar with the deployment.

Trump’s last two national security advisors touted a so-called porcupine strategy, aimed at making Taiwan a pricklier target with more coastal defense cruise missiles encircling the island. Additional Marines and Army Special Forces have helped prepare Taiwanese Marine forces for a possible amphibious invasion and to continue armed resistance against Chinese counterinsurgency efforts if the People’s Liberation Army makes it onshore.

“If you’re focused on hardening Taiwan, what’s more hardening than resisting an amphibious invasion?” one of the people familiar with the deployment, a former U.S. official, told Foreign Policy. “It was just a logical progression to what was happening.” The former official spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military planning. U.S. troops working out of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto American embassy in the country, have been conducting beach walks with the Taiwanese for years to help pinpoint areas to fortify against Chinese landings, the former official added, dating back to at least the Obama administration.

“I would argue conventional systems are not going to deter the Chinese,” said Heino Klinck, who was the Pentagon’s top official for East Asia until January. “What will deter the Chinese is this porcupine strategy of even if you try to swallow us, you’re not going to be able to digest us, because you’re going to be fighting beyond the littorals, beyond the beaches. You will have to fight for every square block in Taiwan.”


Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-Wen waves to assembled guests from the deck of the 'Ming Chuan' frigate during a ceremony to commission two Perry-class guided missile frigates from the United States into the Taiwan Navy, in the southern port of Kaohsiung, on Nov. 8, 2018. CHRIS STOWERS/AFP via Getty Images

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen waves from the deck of a frigate during a ceremony to commission two guided missile frigates from the United States into the Taiwan Navy, in the southern port of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on Nov. 8, 2018. CHRIS STOWERS/AFP via Getty Images

Though the military relationship between the United States and Taiwan has deepened in recent years, the Biden administration, like past administrations, would prefer not to talk about it. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen acknowledged the deployment in an interview with CNN late last month, but U.S. officials have been much more reluctant to describe the presence, deferring questions from reporters.

Defense officials caution that the figures of U.S. troop deployments are a snapshot in time that may not illustrate the full picture. But the trend line is undoubtedly toward a bigger presence. In June, the Defense Manpower Data Center’s tracking numbers picked up 30 active-duty troops and 15 Pentagon civilians serving on the island, headlined by 23 Marines, a tally that does not appear to include the Army Special Forces unit that’s training on Taiwan. That is an increase over the 20 or so troops for most of 2020, which itself was more than the 10 or so troops in Taiwan earlier in the Trump administration and in the late Obama administration. The number of Pentagon civilians on Taiwan remained at around 15 people throughout that period of time.

The Defense Department declined to comment on the training of Taiwanese forces in response to questions from Foreign Policy. But Lt. Col. Martin Meiners, a Pentagon spokesman, said that U.S. support for Taiwan and the defense relationship are “aligned against the current threat posed by the People’s Republic of China and is in line with our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act and our One China policy.”

The United States has long supported a peaceful resolution of cross-strait tensions. Meiners said that the United States continues to assist Taiwan in maintaining a self-sufficient defense. China’s uptick in military exercises near Taiwan is “destabilizing and increase[s] the risk of miscalculation,” he added.

Two U.S.-made F-16V fighter jets release flares after dropping bombs during the annual Han Kuang military drills in Taichung, Taiwan, on July 16, 2020. The military drills aim to test how the armed forces would repel an invasion from China, which has vowed to bring Taiwan back into the fold—by force if necessary. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

Two U.S.-made F-16V fighter jets release flares after dropping bombs during the annual Han Kuang military drills in Taichung, Taiwan, on July 16, 2020. The military drills aim to test how the armed forces would repel an invasion from China, which has vowed to bring Taiwan back into the fold—by force if necessary. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

The stepped-up presence during the Trump administration came about after intense lobbying by then-National Security Advisor John Bolton, according to the former U.S. official. Bolton’s successor, Robert O’Brien, continued the policy. Bolton had written about the possibility of stationing U.S. forces on Taiwan before joining the last administration, and he began a series of National Security Council-led interagency meetings that led to the Trump administration adding more troops despite objections inside the State Department’s Office of Taiwan Coordination, which has long sought to prevent Taipei from taking actions that could harm U.S. relations with Beijing.

The State Department declined to comment on the matter.

News of the deployment, which stunned lawmakers, has progressive foreign-policymakers worried that the Biden administration could be coming close to the line of a provocation; even some Democratic hawks, such as Rep. Elaine Luria, are worried about escalating tensions.

“I think that’s coming close to the line,” said one Senate Democratic staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject. “At the same time, China is certainly testing the line themselves. I think there are things we can do to signal that, you know, we are serious, but at the same time, sending the message that we are not seeking a confrontation.”

Luria, a moderate Democrat who serves as the vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee, fears that in a worst-case scenario, a surprise Chinese attack could catch three dozen U.S. Marines and Special Forces unaware.

“Like everyone else, I was very surprised to learn of the presence of U.S. forces in Taiwan,” Luria said. “Why was this decision made to put forces there? So if we talk about something that’s escalatory … [it] would be to actually increase or even continue the presence of U.S. forces on Taiwan.”

“This is a big deal,” Luria said. “If anything, I’m not very comfortable with the presence of U.S. forces [in Taiwan].” Luria said she will seek answers from the Defense Department about the Trump administration’s initial decision to ramp up the deployment.

Other lawmakers fear that there are too few guardrails around Taiwan, which is again becoming a flash point in U.S.-Chinese relations. ​“We must find ways to avoid miscalculation in the Taiwan Strait,” Sen. Ed Markey told Foreign Policy in a statement. He said he is working to authorize funding for unofficial dialogues to promote transparency and to understand China’s security perceptions.

Other Democrats, such as Rep. Brad Sherman, who has championed levying stiffer human rights sanctions against China for abuses of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province, are more sanguine.

“A well-trained and well-equipped Taiwanese defense force makes a war less likely,” Sherman, the second-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Foreign Policy in an emailed statement. China, he added, doesn’t know how the United States would respond to any assault and could face severe economic consequences: “Think Iran-level sanctions on steroids,” he said.

Sherman said the move also has a symbolic effect: the United States demonstrates its commitment to help Taiwan defend itself, while also maintaining the deliberately ambiguous policy toward Taiwan that Washington has pursued for decades.

That legacy of strategic ambiguity is coming under fire from some Republicans. Last week, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley unveiled a bill that would allocate $3 billion annually to increase Taiwan’s ability to defend itself in the near term. And even Luria, the moderate Democrat who’s worried about the deployment, wants to give Biden the ability to declare a snap Authorization for Use of Military Force, rather than wait on Congress, if China launches an attack.

“All signs indicate that Xi Jinping is growing more confident in his ability to invade Taiwan,” Hawley told Foreign Policy in an emailed statement. “If we want peace, then Taiwan must prepare for war, especially by accelerating its deployment of the asymmetric defenses required to defeat a Chinese invasion.”


A Taiwanese sailor speaks next to torpedo launch tubes during a tour aboard a U.S.-made Guppy class submarine at the Tsoying navy base in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, on Jan. 18, 2017. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

A Taiwanese sailor speaks next to torpedo launch tubes during a tour aboard a U.S.-made submarine at the Tsoying naval base in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on Jan. 18, 2017. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. training of Taiwanese forces has long been an open, but not too open, secret. A rare video from the U.S. Army’s 1st Special Forces Group first reported by the Drive last year showed Green Berets training in the country, and Taiwanese media has previously reported that Marine Raiders—the service’s special operations forces—supervised Taiwanese Marines in assault boat and speedboat infiltration.

The Taiwanese have been pushing the Americans, through informal diplomatic channels—as well as public statements about U.S. troops on the island—to take the relationship further and faster, fearing that China is quickly moving to rewrite the geopolitical rulebook in the region. China has long been trying to isolate Taiwan both diplomatically, by trying to force countries to recognize Beijing, and by sidelining Taipei from every sort of international forum, from the International Civil Aviation Organization to the World Health Organization.

Taiwanese officials also want the United States to speed up the timeline of arms sales to the island under the Taiwan Relations Act, the law that governs the U.S. relationship with Taipei. But U.S. officials have long complained about Taiwan’s misguided defense priorities, as it invests in fleets, divisions, and air wings rather than the cheaper missile, rocket, and ground forces that could serve Taipei to repel a Chinese landing. During the Trump administration, the Taiwanese balked at demands from the Pentagon to buy American coastal defense cruise missiles, which U.S. officials insisted would help alter China’s calculus about a potential invasion. Taipei’s unofficial representative office in Washington declined to comment for this story.

The temperature is rising, with China launching its largest ever aerial patrols near Taiwan in early October to coincide with China’s National Day. Defense officials have long seen the effort as a way both to chip away at the integrity of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone—an informal marker of sovereignty—and to burn out Taiwanese pilots by repeatedly forcing them to scramble.

But outside of a major diplomatic flare-up in its first high-level meeting with Chinese officials in March, the Biden administration has proven more cautious about rocking the boat than the Trump administration, according to current and former officials. Kurt Campbell, Biden’s top Asia official at the National Security Council, is more hawkish on China than most in the administration. But even he has sought to internationalize the response to China, instead of championing bluster and military might. And the new administration has tried to grease the slow-moving wheels of government to hone its focus on China. Since the Pentagon’s China review wrapped up earlier this year, the agency has stepped up meetings at the undersecretary level and at Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s level each week to discuss China.

Two former U.S. officials made the point that Taiwan likes messaging the U.S. troop deployments more than the Americans do, because it could make China think twice about attacking the island. Even as top U.S. military officials have warned that Chinese President Xi Jinping would like to resolve the Taiwan situation by 2027—which, if he’s still in office, would be the end of his record-breaking third term—some in Taiwan see the American deployment as a way of calling China’s bluff about how serious it is about going to war over Taiwan.

“I personally think even if this message was revealed by the United States, it may be a good way to send a message to Beijing,” said Wang Ting-yu, the head of Taiwan’s defense and foreign affairs committee in parliament.

“That will put China in an awkward situation, because they have declared one too many times that once the United States military is in Taiwan, they will start a war,” Wang said. “However, the barking dog won’t bite.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Zinya Salfiti is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @zinyasalfitii

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