Another Chinese Red Line Crossed? US Marines Train in Taiwan

11 November 2020 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

Local news outlets in Taiwan reported (also here, in Chinese) that Taiwan’s Naval Command confirmed on 9 November their reports that a contingent of US Marines special operations personnel, the Marine Raiders, had arrived in Taiwan at the invitation of Taiwan’s Ministry of Defence. The Marines are in Taiwan to train their local counterparts in assault and speedboat infiltration at the Tsoying Naval Base in Kaohsiung. Taiwan’s Naval Command said it was a “routine Taiwan-U.S. military exchange and cooperation training”, downplaying the fact that it was the first public acknowledgement of US military personnel training in Taiwan in over 40 years, i.e. since the US, in accordance with the “One-China” policy, acknowledged the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the legitimate leaders of China and, tacitly, that Taiwan was part of the People’s Republic of China in 1979. The training will extend for a month. The statement explained that, ‘In order to maintain regional peace and stability, the military and security cooperation and exchanges between Taiwan and the U.S. are proceeding normally.’

Comment

To be clear, this is not the first time that US military personnel have trained or exercised with their Taiwanese counterparts in Taiwan. The fact that their presence in Taiwan was publicly announced, however, reverses precedence. It is not so much the fact that US special operations operatives are training Taiwanese personnel or even the public announcement of their presence in Taiwan that is bound to upset Beijing, but the timing of the announcement and the exercise itself, which also began on Monday.

The US has recently taken a hard line against China. It recently also announced the sales of major weapons systems to Taiwan, which has caused Beijing much concern. In September this year, China conducted combat manoeuvres near Taiwan, including two days of mass air and sea drills. In mid-October, it was reported that China had begun enhancing its military forces along its south-east coast. Beijing had previously threatened to “re-integrate” Taiwan, which it sees as a breakaway province, with the mainland by force, if necessary. Any military action to achieve that objective can only be done by striking at Taiwan across the Taiwan Strait, which would entail assaults by air and sea. Washington’s sale of 100 Boeing-made Harpoon Coastal Defence Systems to Taiwan would make that exercise a very costly one in terms of the lives, prestige and economic costs to be met.

On 21 October, the United States Department of State notified Congress of the sales to Taiwan of  truck-mounted rocket launchers made by Lockheed Martin, missiles and related equipment made by Boeing, and external sensor pods for F-16 jets. On 26 October, it proposed the sale of 100 cruise missile stations and 400 missiles made by Boeing. These missiles can be used against air- and sea-borne targets. If China had been prepared to accept some casualties in its attempt to invade Taiwan previously, Taipei’s acquisition of those cruise missiles will increase that number considerably.

On 4 November, the Department of State cleared the potential sale of four MQ-9 Sea Guardian drones to Taiwan, along with associated ground stations, spares and training. While the drones can be armed, they will be sold with fitted surveillance equipment, making them very effective force multipliers in any battle theatre. The cost for China in lives, materiél and, arguably most importantly, prestige in any effort to take Taiwan by force would be degrees greater than the cost of those systems.

The news that US personnel are now training Taiwanese troops can only be seen in the context of those weapons sales. The missiles and other weapons systems will enable a conventionally-weaker Taiwan to wage asymmetric warfare against a numerically-stronger China and to exact a very high cost if Beijing were to attempt to invade it. The fact that the Chinese government mouthpiece, Global Times, sought to downplay the news of the US marines training in Taiwan is significant in that it shows, first that the CCP recognises the significance of the public announcement and, second, that it feels sufficiently concerned as to issue a rebuttal of the value of the training being imparted to Taiwanese troops. As the Global Times announced in deprecating terms:

The US military’s presence in Taiwan used to be an open secret, and neither side actively gave publicity to related developments. But this time, Taiwan announced it in a high-profile way because the [ruling Democratic Progressive Party] wanted to give the impression that it has the US support, no matter who wins the US election, Xu Guangyu, a senior adviser to the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, told the Global Times on Monday.

The US military’s training of the island’s troops will not change the cross-Straits military balance, as the island’s military is limited and would collapse at the first blow, Xu said.

The US, in short, appears to be challenging Beijing to react against its actions in regard to Taiwan. General Secretary of the CCP, Xi Jinping, will either have to enact a militaristic response against Taiwan, which could see the US and its allies take an even harder stand against China, or appear in the eyes of the region and the broader international community to back down when challenged by the US. If he were to opt for the latter course, China’s prestige could be severely damaged, Mr Xi’s authority in China undermined and the hawks in the military gain the upper hand.

The situation in the Western Pacific just became that bit more dangerous.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

Published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd.
Suite 5, 202 Hampden Road, Nedlands WA 6009, Australia.