Report

Pentagon Quietly Puts More Troops in Taiwan

Deeper U.S. engagement comes as the wisdom of strategic ambiguity is increasingly questioned.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A US-made CH-47 helicopter flies an 18-meter by 12-meter national flag at a military base in Taoyuan on September 28, 2021.
A US-made CH-47 helicopter flies an 18-meter by 12-meter national flag at a military base in Taoyuan on September 28, 2021. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration added more U.S. troops to Taiwan over the past few months, according to newly published Defense Department data, leaving nearly 40 troops on the embattled island to protect the de facto U.S. embassy and train Taiwanese troops.

The small but steadily growing U.S. footprint—now nearly twice as big as last year—could represent increased concern in the White House and the Pentagon over the island’s fate. While most military officials don’t believe China has made the decision to invade just yet, as Beijing builds up its amphibious forces and hypersonic missiles to potentially soften up Taiwan’s defenses, the temperature has continued to rise, especially after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s virtual coronation in a major party plenum this month. Chinese officials are increasingly outspoken about restoring what they see as a renegade province—by any measure.

“Achieving China’s complete reunification is an aspiration shared by all sons and daughters of the Chinese nation. We will strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and efforts. That said, should the separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence’ provoke us, force our hands, or even cross the red line, we will be compelled to take resolute measures,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said this week.

The Biden administration added more U.S. troops to Taiwan over the past few months, according to newly published Defense Department data, leaving nearly 40 troops on the embattled island to protect the de facto U.S. embassy and train Taiwanese troops.

The small but steadily growing U.S. footprint—now nearly twice as big as last year—could represent increased concern in the White House and the Pentagon over the island’s fate. While most military officials don’t believe China has made the decision to invade just yet, as Beijing builds up its amphibious forces and hypersonic missiles to potentially soften up Taiwan’s defenses, the temperature has continued to rise, especially after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s virtual coronation in a major party plenum this month. Chinese officials are increasingly outspoken about restoring what they see as a renegade province—by any measure.

“Achieving China’s complete reunification is an aspiration shared by all sons and daughters of the Chinese nation. We will strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and efforts. That said, should the separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence’ provoke us, force our hands, or even cross the red line, we will be compelled to take resolute measures,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said this week.

According to the Defense Manpower Data Center, a Pentagon office that collates troop data, the United States now has 39 troops in Taiwan, including 29 Marines, five airmen, three sailors, and two soldiers. That’s a jump from June, when the same office tracked 30 active-duty troops and 15 civilians serving on the island, including 23 Marines, as Foreign Policy previously reported

The steady buildup comes as tensions over Taiwan have risen in recent weeks. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden characterized Taiwan as “independent” in a seeming off-the-cuff break with the U.S. “One China” policy, under which Washington has solely recognized Beijing while holding unofficial diplomatic relations with Taiwan since 1979. Biden and other senior administration officials later walked back the comments, insisting there was no policy change. 

Some experts want the Biden administration to take a harder stance in coming to publicly support Taiwan, including with high-level visits by U.S. military and civilian officials, after China held record-breaking exercises in the island’s air defense identification zone in late September and early October. 

“I don’t know that the U.S. government is serious about the defense of Taiwan,” said Ian Easton, a senior director at the Project 2049 Institute, a China-focused think tank based in Arlington, Virginia. “Right now, there’s still too many of these old bad habits that have built up in U.S.-Taiwan relations where the U.S. kind of acts like we’re ashamed to be there. Or actually maybe we’re doing something wrong by defending a like-minded democracy, and we don’t want to upset Beijing.”

The numbers from the Defense Manpower Data Center, the Pentagon tracking office, may not provide a full snapshot of U.S. troop numbers; it is not clear whether the tracking accounts for Army Special Forces training in Taiwan, for example. But the latest figure represents another jump from what has been historically a small cluster of U.S. forces. During the late Obama and early Trump administrations, the United States had 10 or so troops on the island, which doubled by the end of former President Donald Trump’s term. The number of U.S. civilians has remained mostly consistent, per Pentagon tracking figures, at about 15.

And that role appears to be expanding: Marines are deployed around the world to help out with embassy security, and U.S. forces that have been quietly rotated in and out of Taiwan for decades have typically helped Taiwan’s military train up on U.S. weapons systems sold under the Taiwan Relations Act. But in the past two years, after intense lobbying from former National Security Advisor John Bolton, U.S. troops have begun to take a more active role, helping the Taiwanese prepare to repel a possible Chinese amphibious assault and train them to continue an armed resistance on land if the People’s Liberation Army tries to mop up with a counterinsurgency campaign. 

Some are worried that the growth of U.S. troops in Taiwan could unnecessarily commit the Pentagon to defending the island, further extending the U.S. military and going back on the Biden administration’s seeming desire to extricate more U.S. forces from foreign conflicts.

“The reality is that the American people would not and do not support going to war with China over Taiwan,” said Alexander McCoy, a progressive foreign-policy organizer and one of the co-founders of Common Defense, a veterans group. “That’s just the basic reality. So these members of Congress that are being hawkish about Taiwan, they’re bluffing with their weak poker hand face up on the table, and they’re using our lives as chips, not to mention the lives of all the people who would be caught in the crossfire. It’s just stupid, and I struggle to even know what to say about it.”

Yet Beijing only appears to be moving faster. The congressionally appointed U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said in its annual report, released on Wednesday, that China had stepped up military coercion in the East and South China Seas, as well as in the Taiwan Strait over the past year. The commission called on Congress to take major steps forward in the U.S. relationship with Taiwan, including by granting multiyear U.S. military aid to the island and priority delivery for U.S. weapons systems, authorizing the deployment of anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles to the region, and allocating money for better missile defense and hardening U.S. bases against possible Chinese attack. 

Some Republicans and defense experts are beginning to doubt the wisdom of the United States’ so-called “strategic ambiguity” around the defense of Taiwan, a long-held policy under which Washington is deliberately not clear about whether it would defend Taiwan from Chinese invasion. 

“I can’t think of another case in the past 70 years where the U.S. has ever been able to deter a power like China by doing what it’s doing with Taiwan,” said Easton, the China defense expert. “Strategic ambiguity did not deter North Korea from invading South Korea in 1950. It did not deter North Vietnam from invading South Vietnam. It did not deter Saddam Hussein from invading Kuwait in 1990. Those were all cases where we had policies of strategic ambiguity and they failed.”

“The more steps this administration and any future administration can take to be more transparent, the better,” he said.

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

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