• Reuters, Bloomberg

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The U.S. has had troops in Taiwan training local forces to better defend themselves in case of attack by China, according to a U.S. defense official, an acknowledgment that could challenge Washington’s recent thaw with Beijing.

The official, who asked not to be identified, confirmed an earlier report by The Wall Street Journal that more than two dozen American service members, including special forces, have been in Taiwan for more than a year. Some of the training has been with local maritime forces on small-boat exercises, according to the Journal.

The Pentagon, which historically has not disclosed details about U.S. training or advising of Taiwanese forces, did not specifically comment on or confirm the deployment.

"I don't have any comments on specific operations, engagements or training, but I would like to highlight that our support for and defense relationship with Taiwan remains aligned against the current threat posed by the People’s Republic of China," said Pentagon spokesman John Supple.

Taiwan's Defense Ministry declined to comment, saying only that "all military exchanges are carried out in accordance with annual plans."

While at least one Asian media outlet has previously reported on such training, any kind of official U.S. confirmation could further aggravate U.S.-China relations at a time when Beijing is carrying out muscular military exercises near Taiwan.

The deployment of foreign forces in Taiwan is one of six conditions Chinese military commanders have set for launching a military strike, according to a state media report in April 2020 that cited a retired researcher with the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force.

"Activities such as this — for training purposes — have been going on for years,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. "In the past, these activities have been kept under wraps. If they are now being made public deliberately, that’s new. And it will undoubtedly provoke a reaction from China.”

A U.S.-made E2K early warning aircraft takes off from a motorway in Pingtung, Taiwan, during the annual Han Kuang drill on Sept. 15. | AFP-JIJI
A U.S.-made E2K early warning aircraft takes off from a motorway in Pingtung, Taiwan, during the annual Han Kuang drill on Sept. 15. | AFP-JIJI

The confirmation comes a day after the White House announced a virtual meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping before the end of the year. The summit plan resulted from six hours of meetings Wednesday between White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Zurich.

Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper, called on the U.S. to disclose the troops’ location, suggesting that would aid a Chinese attack. "See whether the PLA will launch a targeted air strike to eliminate those US invaders!” he said in a tweet.

Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, who leads the House Foreign Affairs' subcommittee on Asia, was asked at a defense conference if he had been made aware of the deployment.

"Not particularly this deployment, if I call it a deployment. I think we have special operators and others there, and we have in the past that are there training (Taiwan's) military, working with them," Bera said.

Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who is on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the same event he had not been made specifically aware and had only seen public reports, but added, "Actually I would be happier if that number was in the hundreds."

The United States is Taiwan's largest supplier of weaponry and has long offered some degree of training on weapons systems, as well as detailed advice on ways to strengthen its military to guard against an invasion by China's Peoples Liberation Army.

China sees Taiwan as a wayward province and has not ruled out taking the island by force.

Chinese military aircraft have repeatedly flown in recent days through Taiwan's expansive air defense identification zone, which extends well outside Taiwan's airspace.

But China has avoided Taiwanese airspace, no shots have been fired and there have been no known close calls between Chinese and Taiwanese aircraft.

The Taiwanese government has denounced China's military exercises and says it will defend the island's freedom and democracy, insisting that only Taiwan's people can decide their future.

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