As the United States’ commitment to defending Taiwan is questioned amid Chinese threats of invasion, once unimaginable proposals are being debated in the American military — including the return of U.S. forces to Taiwan.
While U.S. forces withdrew from Taiwan after Washington formalized diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1979, a new proposal to re-establish the United States’ first permanent ground forces is stirring controversy.
The proposal, which was published in an essay in the September-October edition of the U.S. Army Military Review, a professional journal of the army, contends that to effectively deter an increasingly capable Chinese military from an attack on Taiwan, the United States “needs to posture its forces in a way that would inevitably trigger a larger conflict and make plain its commitment to Taiwanese defense.”
“The United States needs to consider basing ground forces in Taiwan if it is committed to defending Taiwanese sovereignty,” according to the proposal.
Combat-credible heavy U.S. forces in Taiwan, the essay said, could not only go far in repelling a Chinese cross-strait operation, “but also serve as a tripwire that would inevitably trigger a wider conflict not acceptable to China.”
The U.S. currently maintains a policy toward Taiwan known as “strategic ambiguity,” where it refuses to declare whether U.S forces will be deployed to defend the island nation in the event of a Chinese attack. While this policy has faced criticism over its inherent uncertainty, it is intended to give both countries flexibility to respond diplomatically without escalating to conflict. Any change could cause already strained Sino-U.S. ties to deteriorate even further.
"A decision to deploy U.S. forces on Taiwan would trigger a crisis in U.S.-China relations and could provoke the attack on Taiwan that we seek to avoid," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
The U.S. military has not always been absent from Taiwan. It withdrew the last of its troops from Taiwan in 1979 as a condition of normalizing relations with Beijing under the “one China” policy. The subsequent U.S.-Taiwan Relations Act empowered Washington to continue arms sales to Taipei and maintain strategic ambiguity in regards to its defense.
But Beijing’s increasingly heated rhetoric toward self-ruled Taipei in recent months — including repeated threats of war in Chinese state media — has left some critics thirsty for a clearer stance by Washington.
According to the essay, redeploying U.S. forces on Taiwanese soil would mean replacing strategic ambiguity with strategic clarity, adding weight to the Washington's commitment to defending the country while also deterring the increasingly credible threat of “forced reunification” by China.
Beijing considers Taiwan to be a “rogue province” and has long voiced its goal of reunifying it with the mainland. China also views the island as an integral component of its military’s long-term ambitions.
Observers say a future where Taiwan is controlled by mainland China would be considered a strategic failure by the U.S., as it would permit the Chinese navy to establish a strategic access point into the Pacific, bypassing the so-called first island chain that stretches from the Kuril Islands to Borneo.
The U.S. has long managed to contain the expansion of the Chinese navy by using its alliances with territories in the island chain, including Taiwan, as strategic chokepoints.
Citing numerous studies, the essay appears to echo the sentiment of the larger U.S. defense community, which has grown increasingly alarmed by the possibility the U.S. will have a much harder time in any possible conflict acting against China’s "anti-access and area denial" anti-ship missiles and naval forces.
Since the last Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996, when the U.S. used its formidable naval power to send a signal that Washington would not tolerate Chinese coercion, Beijing has aggressively pursued a rapid modernization and expansion of these forces. It now routinely conducts military exercises and displays of force in the waters and skies near Taiwan.
Nonetheless, some experts say a U.S. troop presence may not even be necessary, as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), despite its modernization progress, still lacks the ability to launch an amphibious invasion of Taiwan.
“It doesn't have enough strategic airlift or logistic capabilities, as well as the ability to ferry enough forces across (the Taiwan Strait) to sustain a full-scale invasion,” said Adam Ni, an expert with the China Policy Centre think tank in Canberra. “Militarily, the PLA currently is just not ready for that.”
Any invasion would also have to contend with Taiwan’s own increasingly potent military, which is being bolstered by U.S. arms sales, including 100 Harpoon Coast Defense Systems announced Tuesday. Those sales have been centered around weapons that improve Taipei’s asymmetric ability to repulse an invasion by the much larger Chinese military.
But stationing U.S. forces in Taiwan would pose a massive political challenge for Washington.
China has alluded that doing so would cross a red line, violating the United States’ promise to remove troops and installations from Taiwan under a series of agreements that normalized relations between Beijing and Washington in the 1970s.
Indeed, China has reacted angrily to even the suggestion that U.S. forces could return, saying such a move would be a clear violation of the Three Joint Communiques, a series of bilateral agreements that have governed the nature of Sino-American relations.
“Deployment of the U.S. army to Taiwan means the start of a cross-Straits war,” China’s state-run Global Times newspaper said in an editorial last month. “With the Anti-Secession Law in place, Taiwan and the U.S. should be prepared to confront the determination of the 1.4 billion mainland people and the PLA if they step over the red lines.”
A separate article in the nationalist tabloid also highlighted the junior stature of the essay’s author within the U.S. military, quoting an unidentified expert as saying that it “does not necessarily represent a strategic decision” of the U.S. government and top military brass.
Although the proposal remains a mere suggestion, the fact that it is openly being discussed represents a sea change in U.S. thinking. Washington’s defense posture has historically prioritized regional stability in Asia — and stationing troops in Taiwan would be considered a highly provocative act that would rock the regional security balance.
The essay’s publication also comes as Washington’s policy toward China undergoes a dramatic shift from one of four decades of cooperation — especially economic — to one that now is focused on strategic rivalry.
This shift was captured most visibly in a July speech at the Nixon Presidential Library in California by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In it, Pompeo — a known China hawk — rejected 50 years of policy by resurrecting Cold War characterizations of China as a Marxist-Leninist regime and singling out Beijing for pursuing a “decadeslong desire for global hegemony.”
In Taipei, meanwhile, the idea of returning troops to Taiwan has been met with a cautious response by some lawmakers.
“The U.S. military does not necessarily have to be stationed in Taiwan to act as a deterrent,” Lo Chih-cheng, a lawmaker with the ruling Democratic People’s Party told Taiwan News last month. "I think the military performance of the U.S. military in this place is already very clear. That is to say, China cannot be allowed to undermine the stability and security of any region here."
Ultimately, experts say that the U.S. is unlikely to break its diplomatic agreements with China and deploy troops to Taiwan anytime soon — though they admit that the current trajectory of the relationship leaves the door open to such a possibility.
“This would be a major escalation of the situation, at least seen from Beijing's perspective, something that's in the category of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan,” said the China Policy Centre’s Ni.
“Then again … we’ve seen the bilateral relationship in freefall,” he said. “Things that were unthinkable 12 months before have become reality, so I would not totally discount the possibility of that from happening.”
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