Taiwan confirms U.S. military presence, says defending island is vital for democracy

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen confirmed that American troops have been training the Taiwanese military, as tensions between Beijing and the self-governing island intensify over China’s fears of Taipei’s evolving relationship with Washington.

Tsai, who has ruled Taiwan as head of the Democratic Progressive Party since 2016, told CNN in an interview published on Thursday that U.S. military personnel were in Taiwan as part of a training program. She declined to give details of the numbers of soldiers involved.

The rare public acknowledgment, which comes after the Wall Street Journal reported that Marines had been in Taiwan for at least a year, drew an angry response from the Chinese state-backed tabloid the Global Times, which accused Tsai of “pushing the mainland to decide to resolve the Taiwan question by force.”

The Chinese Communist Party has claimed Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory since 1949 when the Nationalist Kuomintang retreated to the island about 100 miles from the coast of southeastern Fujian province. Beijing regularly threatens to take the island by force if Taiwan’s democratically elected government ever declares legal independence.

Beijing’s mistrust of Tsai, whose party historically supported formal independence, has only grown after she won a second term in a landslide victory last year. Tsai maintains that she supports a continuation of the status quo in Taipei’s relationship with Beijing, reflecting her party’s official position since 1999. But Chinese officials accuse her of supporting “separatists.”

Tsai’s interview remarks come at an unusually fraught period even for the typically tense relationship between Taipei and Beijing. Over China’s National Day holiday this month, the People’s Liberation Army sent a record number of fighter jets and bombers into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, drawing warnings from the United States.

That same week, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Tsai exchanged dueling speeches laying out their visions for the future of Taiwan. While Xi promised that unification would “definitely be achieved,” Tsai marked Taiwan’s National Day by responding that “nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us.”

In her interview, Tsai framed the question of protecting Taiwan as one of defending democracy. “If we fail, then that means people that believe in these values would doubt whether these are values that they [should] be fighting for,” she told CNN.

By openly emphasizing the strength of Taiwan’s ties with the United States, Tsai hopes to deter Beijing from future military action, said Charles Chong-Han Wu, associate professor at the Department of Diplomacy, National Chengchi University. “It sends a signal that Americans are behind supporting us,” he said. “The president saying it out loud makes it more strategic and credible.”

Wu added that Tsai appeared to be taking advantage of an opportunity to deter Beijing after President Biden last week said that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked. “She wants to tell Beijing, ‘Don’t act rashly. America really will help us,’” he said.

Many analysts believed Biden misspoke, because his remarks appeared to be at odds with a policy of “strategic ambiguity” which leaves it unclear whether the United States would intervene in a conflict. The White House later clarified that U.S. policy had not changed. Still, Beijing responded with a warning to underestimate its resolve, adding that China has “no room for compromise” over Taiwan.

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