President Tsai Ing-wen has confirmed that a small number of US troops are present in Taiwan to help with training, adding that she had “faith” that the US military would defend the island in the event of a Chinese attack.
The remarks sparked a strident, albeit familiar, reprimand on Thursday from China, which accused the United States of trying to “stir up trouble” and “firmly opposes” any official or military contact between Taipei and Washington.
In an interview with CNN, Tsai described Taiwan as a regional “beacon” of democracy that faces a giant authoritarian neighbor as the threat from Beijing grows “every day.”
The presence of US troops was first confirmed to AFP and other media by a Pentagon official earlier this month.
Tsai’s comments mark the first time a Taiwanese leader has publicly made such an admission since the last American garrison that left in 1979 when Washington shifted diplomatic recognition to Beijing.
When asked how many US troops were in Taiwan, he replied “not as many as people thought.”
“We have a wide range of cooperation with the United States with the goal of increasing our defense capabilities,” he added.
When asked if he was confident that the United States would help defend Taiwan against China if necessary, Tsai replied, “I have faith.”
Speaking to lawmakers on Thursday, Taiwan Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said that US and Taiwanese troops have had long-standing contacts with each other.
“We have personnel exchanges and they (US soldiers) would be here for military cooperation, but this is different, by my definition, from having ‘troops stationed’ here,” Chiu said.
Fighter jet raids
Authoritarian China regards autonomous Taiwan as its own territory and has vowed to take the island one day, by force if necessary.
Beijing’s saber rattling has increased in recent years, exacerbating fears that the island of 23 million people could become a major global flash point.
China’s ultra-nationalist state-run Global Times newspaper published an editorial on Thursday saying that “the fact that US troops are stationed in Taiwan has crossed the bottom line.”
On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden rebuked Beijing at a virtual summit for its actions near Taiwan.
At the East Asia summit, attended by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Biden said the United States was “deeply concerned about China’s coercive and proactive actions … across the Taiwan Strait.”
Such actions “threaten regional peace and stability,” Biden said in the closed session, according to a recording of his comments obtained by AFP.
Biden said last week on a televised forum that the United States was ready to defend Taiwan from any Chinese invasion.
The White House quickly backtracked those comments amid warnings from Beijing, continuing a strategy of ambiguity over whether it would intervene militarily if China attacked.
While the United States changed diplomatic recognition to Beijing, it opposes any forced change in Taiwan’s status. A decades-old law of Congress also obligates the United States to help maintain Taiwan’s defensive capabilities.
Beijing has cut formal ties and increased diplomatic, economic and military pressure on Taiwan because Tsai does not view the island as part of a “one China.”
Tsai won two elections and considers Taiwan a de facto sovereign nation.
During the CNN interview, Tsai reiterated her offer to speak with Xi to “reduce misunderstandings” and address differences in their political systems, something that Beijing has so far rejected.
Defending Taiwan from China has become a rare bipartisan issue in Washington, and there is growing support for the island in parts of Europe.
Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu will visit the Czech Republic and Slovakia this week at the invitation of local politicians, a trip that Beijing has criticized. He plans to travel to Rome this weekend.
On Wednesday, Politico reported that he also planned to make a stopover in Brussels.
An EU spokesman told Politico that he was “aware of the visit”, that it would be “apolitical”.
“We are committed to Taiwan even in the absence of diplomatic recognition,” the spokesman added.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on reports of a stopover in Brussels.