Headlines the last few days screamed about Chinese aggression and Chinese warplanes buzzing over Taiwan. Then, came the “bombshell” report of U.S. troops in Taiwan, training the Taiwanese military. To invade China? To repel a Chinese invasion? To quit losing at paintball? How about because we maintain an agreement with them that has been in place for decades?
The Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China?
After World War II, the U.S. and China were not exactly allies, but not enemies either. Same with Russia. In order to defend against Japanese forces, the U.S. forged alliances with Chinese Nationalists. After the war, a pro-Communist government established the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) on the mainland, forcing Chinese Nationalists to flee to Taiwan, where they continued as the Republic of China in exile. Because the U.S. had backed Nationalist forces against the Japanese, they also backed the exiled Republic of China (R.O.C.). At least on paper. Or in words. Maybe it was thoughts and prayers?
The US and Taiwan
Since the end of WWII and the standup of Communist China on the mainland, the U.S. has maintained ties with the R.O.C. government in Taiwan. The Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty was signed by the U.S. and R.O.C. in 1954, promising Taiwan aid in case of P.R.C. aggression. It also adjured Taiwan not to attempt aggression toward mainland China, effectively recognizing the two as separate entities. The problem is that both governments consider themselves to be the “true” Chinese government
What, then, is an ally supposed to do? From 1955 to 1979, the U.S. formally recognized the R.O.C. via the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty. The treaty was built on political, social, and economical welfare, and military needs, cementing a U.S. military presence in the Taiwan Strait. After President Carter nullified the Sino-American Treaty in 1979, the U.S. officially recognized the People’s Republic of China, and the Taiwan Relations Act was enacted.
Taiwan Relations Act
In an effort to be as ambiguous as possible, the TRA recognizes the “governing authorities” on Taiwan, and allows for continued diplomatic relations, even though the P.R.C. is the legitimate government. All of this is confusing and written in such a way as to offend the least amount of people. While we don’t recognize you as a sovereign country, we will act as if you are a sovereign country. Though we don’t explicitly say our military might is available, we don’t explicitly say that it is not. All that the Taiwan Relations Act says is we will help you to defend yourselves, but falls short of saying exactly how.
Taiwanese and US Military
To that end, U.S. military support for Taiwan has been steady for years. Taiwan has purchased billions of dollars worth of U.S. weapons and aircraft, building and maintaining an impressive defensive posture. Why shouldn’t the U.S. Army and Marine Corps also provide training? Whether that training is on the various weapons systems Taiwan has bought, or training on military tactics, the U.S. commitment to support Taiwan is still there.
The Taiwanese Air Force flies numerous aircraft bought from the U.S., including the F-16. Taiwanese pilots receive flight training at Luke AFB, Arizona. USAF officials would like to train alongside the Taiwanese air force, but the way is hampered by Washington’s fears of offending Communist China. Taiwan owns and operates hundreds of U.S.-made tanks, helicopters, and missile and rocket launch systems. It only makes sense for U.S. military personnel to provide training, but, again, what would Beijing say?
In the South China Sea, the US, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all feel the pressure of Chinese aggression. That is why there are regularly scheduled exercises that take place there. That is why the US works alongside our allies in the region, showcasing not only our might but our ability to project and sustain it. Because of tense US-China relations, the presence of ground troops in Taiwan is concerning to China.
But, and hear me out, the US has had a presence in Taiwan for over 60 years. Although the last official US military base in Taiwan closed in 1979, the Taiwan Relations Act assured the US would maintain close military ties with the country. Though they do not officially train together, US officials often act as observers during Taiwanese military exercises. According to The Foreign Relations Authorization Act for 2003, Taiwan is considered to be a major non-NATO ally to the US. Why, then, should we not work together?
US Military Presence in Taiwan
A small group of U.S. forces has been in Taiwan for over a year now. Initially reported in Taiwanese media in late 2020, both U.S. and Taiwanese officials have said that the troops’ presence was part of bilateral exercises, rather than straight training. The Army posted a video on Facebook last year of Operation Balance Tamper showing American troops working side-by-side with the Taiwanese military. Though the Army took the video down, it was widely reported at the time, and the video is still out there.
Taiwan exists in a Schrodinger’s box, as far as the U.S. and China are concerned. As long as the U.S. leaves Taiwan alone, China catcalls about unification but stays on its side of the street. As long as China leaves Taiwan alone, the U.S. continues regularly supporting it but doesn’t move in. It is a balancing act and has been for a very long time with both sides too evenly matched for it to tilt one way or the other.
Regardless of how it is portrayed in the media, the U.S. and Taiwan have maintained a working military arrangement since the end of World War II. For many of those years, the U.S. and Communist China also maintained military arrangements, including arms sales in the 1980s. Tensions are escalating in the region, but they have been escalating since a pro-Communist government was stood up in mainland China. This is not to say tensions won’t boil over, but there is no new threat to stability except China’s buildup. But, again, China is always building up.
As long as sabers are rattled, other sabers will also be rattled in response. Until one of those sabers is pulled and pointed, rattling is all it is. And it goes on and on and on…