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US and Taiwan Militaries – Doing More Together, But There's a Catch

The Taiwan military has languished in isolation for 40 years. Increased interaction with US forces is a move in the right direction.



Taiwan Army units train at a base in southwestern Taiwan's Chiayi County on January 6 (provided by the Presidential Office/Kyodo)

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Americans will be deploying as many as 200 troops to Taiwan to serve in training and advisory roles to Taiwan's military.

This is a good development. If properly deployed, a hundred or two hundred troops can have a positive, even outsized, effect. Among other things, the Americans can train more of Taiwan's military or, better said, train Taiwan's "trainers," who will in turn share new concepts more broadly within the Taiwan armed forces. 


Why is this so important?

For starters, Taiwan's military has had very little meaningful engagement with the United States military – or with anyone – for the last four decades. Combined training with US forces appears to have consisted of two platoon-sized events between Taiwan Marines and US Marines – one in 2017 and another in 2021.

The predictable result of over 40 years of isolation is that Taiwan's defense capabilities have languished, and almost fossilized. Imagine a baseball team that never plays other teams. It only plays intrasquad games with itself.  Improvement comes slowly, if at all. 

Taiwan's military needs as much direct exposure to other militaries as possible. And this is a start. 

There's also a psychological aspect to the Americans doing more with Taiwan.

Decades of isolation battered Taiwan's confidence and ability and willingness to defend itself. 

So, when Taiwanese feel like they aren't a friendless pariah ー and the Americans are indeed backing them up ー it bolsters confidence within the military, the government, and the public at large. This matters as much as the new tactics, techniques, and procedures Taiwan's military might learn.  

The US Navy's Aegis destroyer Antietam participates in operations in the Taiwan Strait on August 28, 2022 (courtesy of US Navy/Kyodo)

What now?

Will the number of American troops in Taiwan increase? Possibly. But first things first. Make sure that the first tranche are doing useful things ー not administrative work or "ticket punching."

Hopefully, some of the new Americans will get involved with joint planning with Taiwan's military for future Taiwan contingencies. Joint US-Taiwan operational planning doesn't seem to have been a priority to date. If the Chinese do something, the idea seems to be to "wing it."


It will also be useful if a few of the Americans are allocated to help Taiwan improve its military reserve force ー which needs all sorts of attention. And some help with Civil Defense would also be in order.

And a hundred or two of the right US service personnel is better than a couple thousand of the wrong ones.

The right ones? Those people of any rank who have the "magic" when you put them into a foreign environment.  "Magic"? They of course know their stuff and can operate without direct supervision, but even more, the locals want to be around them and want to listen to them ー and be like them.

There's a lot fewer of these people around than one imagines.

Taiwan Porcupine Strategy CSIS
President Tsai Ing-wen observes training at a military base in southwestern Taiwan's Chiayi County. This photo is from January 6. (Provided by the Taiwan President's Office via Kyodo)

How about more training ー of all kinds?

The Wall Street Journal reports that Taiwanese forces (of indeterminate size) are already training in the United States with the Michigan National Guard. This is good news. And reportedly, the numbers might increase to battalion-size (around 600 troops). 

It's important to operate as a fairly large unit when the chance allows. And you also expose larger numbers of troops to a different environment and a new training setting. This is how a military improves. By operating with the Americans they'll improve even more.

And since the Pentagon is showing some uncharacteristic initiative, perhaps the Taiwan Navy and Marine Corps will finally be invited to Guam and the Northern Marianas for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief training with the US Navy and Marines. Do so, and the Japan Self-Defense Forces might even join in.

Where's the catch?

As is usually the case with United States policy towards Taiwan, there's a degree of schizophrenia. 

How so? Note the unnamed US government official quoted in the WSJ article who says they are very careful to not do anything China will find too objectionable.

"One of the difficult things to determine is what really is objectionable to China," said one of the US officials about the training. "We don't think at the levels that we're engaged in and are likely to remain engaged in the near future that we are anywhere close to a tipping point for China, but that's a question that is constantly being evaluated and looked at specifically with every decision involving support to Taiwan."

Of course, the First Marine Division is not going to be deployed to Taiwan ー and nobody is calling for that. But this attitude is worrisome and dangerous. It suggests that American support for Taiwan is still, and ultimately, handcuffed by fear of what the Chinese Communists might think. 

This US Navy Aegis destroyer Chancellorsville participated in activities in the Taiwan Strait. August 28, 2022. (courtesy of US Navy/Kyodo)

What's the bottom line?

American policymakers should remember a lesson they might have learned on the schoolyard playground at age five.

When dealing with a bully, or a regime like the Chinese Communist Party, you are either willing to fight or you are not. And if America indicates it will back down if Beijing's bullies scream loud enough and send out the PLA to threaten Taiwan, while warning of nuclear war with America, China will have the upper hand. And it will play it to the full. That would make a shooting war more likely, unless America is willing to slink out of Asia.

The bottom line: the more willing America is to fight for Taiwan, the less likely it is that it will have to.

Increased interaction between US forces and Taiwan's military is a move in the right direction. But it's just getting started ー decades late ー and is only part of the equation.

Now, if Washington really wants to do something useful, offer Taiwan a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and strengthen its economy. That's as important as bolstering the military. An FTA is only as hard as the Biden administration wants it to be.


Author: Grant Newsham
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the soon-to-be-released book, When China Attacks: A Warning To America. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward.

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