When I was fresh out of the US Naval Academy in the mid-1970s, I was assigned to a destroyer that was preparing for a deployment to the western Pacific. Among many planned calls, one stood out: Keelung , at the northern tip of the island of Taiwan. It had a reputation as a welcoming port for navy warships — in those days, the US flag was often seen on destroyers and cruisers sailing in and out of Taiwan’s harbors.
Suddenly our schedule changed, and visits to Taiwan — both to Keelung and to Kaohsiung, the island’s largest port — were abruptly cancelled. Instead, we headed to the Philippines and Hong Kong, then a British crown colony. We were surprised and disappointed but sensed that a big geopolitical wind had blown through east Asia.
The change of itinerary was due to the Jimmy Carter administration’s decision to acquiesce to Beijing’s insistence that there was only “one China,” and the US forswore diplomatic relations and military-to-military contact with Taiwan. For the following four decades, no US military presence had been visible on the island.
According to credible news reports, that changed last week, when a deployment of US Marines and Special Forces to Taiwan surfaced in public view. According to press accounts, for a year there have been about two dozen American troops conducting training for the island’s armed forces. Neither the US nor Taiwan has denied the reports, and at least one unnamed American official confirmed them.
Context is important. The larger strategic background is that the US continues to follow the basic tenets agreed to in the late 1970s, meaning no official diplomatic recognition for Taiwan and no public support for formal independence. This is likely what President Joe Biden meant last week in saying, “We will abide by the Taiwan agreement,” for which he was widely if erroneously criticised.
In terms of defense arrangements, the US follows a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” meaning it has not explicitly stated it would come to Taiwan’s assistance if it were attacked, but has not denied that it might do so. The US has sold fairly advanced weapons systems to Taiwan, provided support in international forums, and maintains a robust trade and investment relationship with the island.
What has begun to change over the past several years is the increasingly aggressive military stance of China towards Taiwan, which it regards as a “renegade province.” China has been adding dozens of warships each year to what is already the world’s largest fleet when measured by sheer numbers. The US Navy still holds the qualitative edge in both offensive and defensive maritime systems, major forward bases in the Indo-Pacific, nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers. But quantity has a quality of its own, and China’s capacity to conduct an effective amphibious assault on Taiwan is solidifying.
The air force of the People’s Liberation Army is also ramping up operations near Taiwan. The first four days of October saw more than 150 Chinese sorties — fighters, bombers and antisubmarine aircraft — enter Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. Each of the missions puts a strain on Taiwan’s air forces to respond, and desensitises its air-defense network to future large-scale operations. The sorties also send a signal to the US to back off from strengthening relations with Taiwan.
Experts in the region are increasingly uneasy. In congressional testimony last spring, Admiral Phil Davidson, then head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, warned that there was a significant possibility of an attack on Taiwan in the next six years. Taiwan’s defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, said last week that tensions were at the highest level in 40 years, and that by 2025 China will bring the cost and potential attrition of an attack low enough that it would have the “full ability” to start a war.
Two former Australian prime ministers, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, have also warned of new assertiveness from Beijing. Expect Biden’s team to abide by the basic tenets of the “one China policy” while working to increase the cost of an invasion.
Hence the small-scale but tactically meaningful deployment of Special Forces and Marines, which will likely be followed by high-level exchanges of visits between senior officials.
Many observers have called for increased defense assistance to Taiwan to include naval strike missiles that could hit Chinese vessels at sea; better missile-defense systems to protect
key logistics infrastructure
(airports, harbours, command-and-control centres); antiship “smart” mines that can be activated on command; offensive and
defensive cybersecurity improvements; and special forces training for specific counterinvasion tactics.
The US will also work to strengthen the resolution of allies, partners and friends in the region — especially the “Quad” nations of Australia, India and Japan.
US allies from Europe will deploy more frequently to the Indo-Pacific, such as the current mission of the new British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth.
At the same time, look for Biden to push for a direct channel between himself and Chinese President Xi Jinping — including a potential virtual summit this year — following conversations last week between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi. The policy seems to be a sensible one: confronting where necessary but seeking zones of cooperation where possible.
Ultimately, the question is whether any of this will deter Beijing, which has established the brightest of “red lines” on the subject
of Taiwan independence. While an explosion is not imminent, tensions will rise steadily.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired US Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of Nato, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also chair of the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and vice chairman of Global Affairs at the Carlyle Group. His latest book is “2034: A Novel of the Next World War”