Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Tuesday offered the first official confirmation a small contingent of American troops is stationed in Taiwan and helping to train its soldiers.
She also expressed faith that the United States would help defend Taiwan if China attacks.
Several unnamed officials told the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in early October that America had stationed a contingent of about two dozen U.S. special operators on a quiet training mission. One of these officials described the deployment as “a small but symbolic effort by the U.S. to increase Taipei’s confidence in building its defenses against potential Chinese aggression.”
The Chinese government demanded the U.S. withdraw even this small number of troops from Taiwan, describing their mission as a challenge to the “One China” principle that functions as “the political foundation of China and U.S. relations.”
The “One China” principle states that Taiwan is a province of China. In reality, Taiwan is a sovereign nation that has never been governed by Beijing in its history and operates an entirely separate state apparatus from the Communist Party regime.
After refusing to comment for the record on the WSJ report for several weeks, Tsai on Tuesday became the first Taiwanese leader in four decades to confirm there are American soldiers in Taiwan, although she added there are “not as many as people thought.” It was not clear if she meant even the estimate of two dozen published by the WSJ was too high.
“We have a wide range of cooperation with the U.S. aiming at increasing our defense capability,” she said during an interview with CNN.
Tsai did not elaborate on the mission of the American military trainers, although she explained that Taiwan is in the process of adjusting its defense strategy.
“We have a system that is inherited from China, which is a very different country,” she said. “The way you defend a big piece of land is different from the way you protect a small island, so we have to change the traditional thinking about how a military should be structured.”
There have been several reports over the past few years that Taiwan’s military needs retraining and restructuring.
The New York Times quoted analysts in 2017 who said Taiwan’s “once formidable” military had been “overshadowed” by China’s growing and modernized armed forces.
“Even as the military refits itself with flashy U.S. arms purchases, such as M1 Abrams tanks and F-16V fighter jets, its front line units are hollowed out, and the entire reserve system is so dysfunctional that few experts or serving military personnel believe it can make a real contribution in the event of war,” Foreign Policy warned in February 2020.
On Tuesday, the WSJ reported that “poor preparation and low morale are pressing concerns” for the Taiwanese military, and its problems have grown so dire that few strategists believe “Taiwan’s military could hold the line” against a Chinese attack. Taiwanese officers refer to many of their pampered recruits as “strawberry soldiers” because they “bruise easily.” A young Taiwanese man told the WSJ how he avoided conscription by scarfing down hamburgers to put on weight.
China, on the other hand, spent the past few years creating a mythology of its soldiers as hard-bitten, stone-cold “wolf warriors.” A major theme in current Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda is that Chinese troops are far tougher, more determined, and more unified than the soft, confused, demoralized Western (and Westernized) forces they might face in battle.
The real-world performance of China’s wolf warriors lags behind their mythology. Beijing has been reluctant to admit how many of them were killed and injured in a hand-to-hand skirmish with Indian forces in the Himalayas in the summer of 2020. Indian officials insist their troops won that strange battle – fought with rocks, sticks, and spiked clubs because both sides wanted to avoid escalating to gunfire – and say the Chinese lost at least twice as many troops as the 20 Indian soldiers who were killed.
Tsai told CNN she has “faith” the United States will help defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression, thanks to efforts like the U.S. special forces training mission, but she hopes China and Taiwan can “co-exist peacefully” despite recent tensions. She encouraged Chinese dictator Xi Jinping to “have more dialogue with the government and people here in Taiwan” to reduce those tensions.
If push comes to shove, Tsai argued that Taiwan is an outpost of democracy the free world should be prepared to defend. Much of her interview seemed to focus on correcting any miscalculations Beijing might be making about how quickly and easily it could capture Taiwan, without facing any severe repercussions from the rest of the world.
“Taiwan is not alone because we are a democracy, we respect freedom and we are peace lovers. And we share values with most of the countries in the region and geographically we are of strategic importance,” she said.
Tsai said the Taiwanese are prepared to defend themselves, but it remains “important that we have the support of our friends, and also like-minded countries.”
The Chinese government responded angrily to Tsai’s interview.
“We firmly oppose official and military ties in any form between the US and the Taiwan region, and oppose the US’ interference in China’s internal affairs,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Thursday.
“The U.S. vessels have repeatedly flexed its muscles to make provocations and stir up troubles in the Taiwan Strait in recent times, sending gravely wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces and threatening cross-Strait peace and stability,” Wang charged. He was referring to U.S. Navy freedom-of-navigation passages through the strait, which are invariably condemned by China as provocative.
Wang insisted “reunification” of China and Taiwan is the “right course,” while “independence” is “retrogression leading to a dead end.”
“No country and no one should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Otherwise, they will suffer another defeat,” he growled. The latter remark might have either been a snide comment about President Joe Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, or a reference to China’s current propaganda drive to celebrate defeating American forces in the Korean War.
Chinese state media erupted in fury after Tsai’s CNN interview, with CGTN darkly warning on Thursday that Tsai’s “shameless opportunism will be brought to an end.”
CGTN accused Tsai and other “separatists” of unleashing a “tidal wave of provocations” against China, which is running out of patience with their antics.
The editorial warned Tsai that her “faith” in protection from America is dangerously misplaced, because “the U.S. is adept at weaponizing partners in regional conflicts, only to abandon them later on countless occasions.”
“It is time for Taiwan to accept its destiny and rejoice in the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. It is not a question of ‘if.’ It is a question of ‘when’ and ‘how,'” the CGTN tirade concluded.