According to a shocking report from the Wall Street Journal, an elite team of US Marine Raiders has been based in Taiwan for over a year, along with a handful of Special Operations troopers.
If the report is accurate, which it appears to be, this deployment would be the first time since 1979, the time when the Taiwan Relations Act was signed into law, that American forces have been based on Taiwan.
The report, in which an unnamed source confirms that “American forces have been operating in Taiwan for at least a year,” also claims that the special operations team has been training Taiwanese forces in ground tactics while the Marines have focused on teaching the island nation’s maritime forces small boat tactics.
That training, the report says, is “part of efforts to shore up the island’s defenses…” Taiwan, due to near-daily incursions of its Air Defense Identification Zone, is working feverishly to shore up its defenses and recently passed a $9 billion USD arms and modernization package, so a US training deployment would make sense contextually.
This new report runs counter to what John Supple, a Pentagon spokesman, told Taiwan News in November of 2020. At that time, he claimed that “The reports about U.S. Marines in Taiwan are inaccurate.” At that time, Taiwan News reported that the Taiwan Ministry of defense described reports of US Marines training Taiwanese Marines at the nation’s Tsoying Naval Base as “not consistent with the facts.”
Mr. Supple has not commented on the new report, but he did note that “our support for and defense relationship with Taiwan remains aligned against the current threat” from China.
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Now, with the WSJ report, it appears that the once-secretive deployment is no longer hidden and that early reports of a training mission in Taiwan were, in fact, at least partially accurate.
It is unclear, however, if there is a secondary purpose to the small deployment. Forbes Staff Writer David Axe, in a recent article, wrote that:
“The tiny American contingent now in Taiwan—a couple dozen SOF troopers and a small Marine Raider unit, according to The Wall Street Journal—largely is symbolic. It signals the growing resolve across presidential administrations to stand up to Chinese aggression and defend democratic Taiwan.”
“There’s always this balance between symbolism and substance, and I think by doing it quietly it’s meant to be more substance.”
So, while the primary mission is likely to train Taiwanese ground and maritime forces and strengthen the island’s “hedgehog” defenses against the Chinese dragon, it may be that the presence of the teams is meant to be a symbol of American resolve and commitment. During the Cold War, American ground forces were stationed in Berlin and West Germany as a “tripwire” meant to deter Soviet aggression. A Taiwan-based contingent of American ground forces could fill a similar role in America’s escalating Cold War with the People’s Republic of China.
As Loren Thompson wrote in Forbes in March of 2021, a small US force based on Taiwan could serve as a tripwire and deter Chinese aggression in the region:
One time-tested solution would be to station a much smaller but nonetheless potent fighting force on Taiwan, to serve as a “tripwire” signaling U.S. commitment to the island’s defense.
However, if the small special forces deployment is intended to serve as a deterrent, it is unclear why it was kept secret. Deterrents only work if the other side knows of their existence. Otherwise, the tripwire could be inadvertently “tripped.”
This training mission comes at a time of heightened tensions between both the US and China and Taiwan and China.
The PRC has flown increasingly large incursions of Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone over the past months. Recently, those incursions culminated in a four day campaign of repeated incursions that involved nearly 150 Chinese planes. According to Reuters, “Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said the situation was “the most serious” in more than 40 years since he joined the military, adding there was a risk of a “misfire” across the sensitive Taiwan Strait.” Additionally, Taiwan’s defense minister recently claimed that China would be ready to mount a full-scale invasion of the island as soon as 2025.
Meanwhile, the US, Japan, the UK, and three other nations recently completed a training mission in the South China Sea that involved US jets flying off of a Japanese carrier, submarine exercises, and the carriers the USS Carl Vinson, the USS Ronald Reagan, and the HMS Queen Elizabeth. The mission, a massive show of allied force, was one of the largest shows of US naval might in decades and highlighted the combined power of the US and its allies in the region.