Several US military officers dressed in mufti and carrying civilian passports slipped into Taiwan several days ago to watch 20,000 Taiwanese soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen charge through last week’s Han Kuang maneuvers to prepare them to repel a possible Chinese invasion.
Those officers were among the 1,500 US military and defense officials who visit the nation each year. In addition, Washington sells large quantities of arms to Taiwan and provides training at bases in the US, despite the lack of diplomatic relations or a security treaty.
Most US military contact is done away from the public eye because the US wants to avoid provoking China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan and rages against all US ties with the nation.
“None of this is covert,” one officer said, “but we do try to keep it discreet.”
A former Taiwanese diplomat said: “We need to strengthen our defenses to hold off an invader long enough to make it easier for the US to come in.”
Washington’s dealings with Taipei are governed by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, passed by the US Congress after the US switched diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China and abrogated a security treaty with Taiwan.
The TRA requires the US to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services” as needed to “maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”
Among the Americans who have visited the nation recently have been six US Marine Corps marksmen fresh from Afghanistan who arrived last summer from a Scout Sniper Platoon at Camp Pendleton in California. They trained alongside Taiwanese marines, special operations forces and police teams.
Retired US admirals and generals make frequent visits, then report to the Pacific Command in Hawaii. Middle-grade officers and senior non-commissioned officers visit to consult with officers and civilian leaders. In turn, Taiwan’s officers visit Hawaii, Washington, and US bases on the mainland.
Taiwan’s military leaders have asked for US advice on organizing a recruiting service because the nation plans to end conscription in favor of a volunteer force — and no one has experience recruiting young men and women into military service. The US also emphasized the merits of strong non-commissioned officers.
Washington’s arms sales to Taiwan have jumped from US$153 million in 1990 to US$6.48 billion in 2010. The most recent package, worth US$5.58 billion, was announced last fall. Over time, the quality of the items sold has been upgraded, so today they are much the same as those used by US forces, including 150 F-16 fighters.
As one officer said: “The F-16s get all the public attention, but it’s not just airplanes we send them.”
Taiwan’s F-16 pilots have been training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona since 1997. Helicopter pilots are trained at Fort Rucker in Alabama. Officers attend the army, navy, marine and air force war colleges and the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. Younger officers go to US artillery, armor and signal schools. Pentagon officials have met with the nation’s officials since 1997 in Monterey, California. Meanwhile, the US-Taiwan Business Council promotes arms sales.
A hotline was set up between the Ministry of National Defense and the Pentagon in 2002, and when a US company sells equipment to Taiwan, technicians train Taiwanese in maintenance.
“They need to know more than how the on/off switch works,” a US official said.
The political sensitivities surrounding almost every aspect of US relations with Taiwan have led to a strange facade. The US is represented in Taipei by the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), a quasi-embassy staffed by 500 US Department of State diplomats and employees who have non-diplomatic titles such as “director” instead of “ambassador.”
Military attaches posted to American Institute in Taiwan wear civilian clothes and have innocuous titles. US warships do not make port calls and military aircraft do not land there except on humanitarian missions. Unlike US embassies everywhere else, the AIT does not fly the US flag, which irritates some US visitors.
Sometimes this gets to be almost comical as the US military in Hawaii scrambles to make sure visitors from Taiwan and China do not bump into each other when they are in Honolulu at the same time.
Richard Halloran is a commentator based in Hawaii.
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