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[Analytics] Does Taiwan’s caution on ‘military training’ show US support has limits?

Two Taiwan servicemen stand in front of US-made Apache AH-64E attack helicopters during a commissioning ceremony at a military base in Taoyuan on July 17, 2018. Photo: AFP / Sam Yeh. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Taiwan’s navy showed signs this week that it is bolstering its amphibious warfare strength with training from US forces, to be better able to repel an attack from mainland China. Lawrence Chung specially for the South China Morning Post.

But both the United States and the island were quick to distance themselves from reports of the cooperation, raising speculation that such help might overstep Washington’s willingness to aid Taipei’s defiance of Beijing.

Uncertainty grew as, days after Taiwan said members of the American armed forces were on the self-ruled island, the US defence department called descriptions of the mission “inaccurate” – a word echoed on Thursday by Taiwan’s defence ministry.

The confusion began after the Taiwanese navy command, in a rare move, acknowledged on Monday that US forces were in Taiwan on an exchange mission.

“In order to maintain regional peace and stability, Taiwan and the US are engaging in military and security cooperation and exchanges which are proceeding normally,” it said, responding to local news reports that the US Marine Raiders were on a month-long mission in Taiwan to train local marines.

The command declined to reveal the nature of the activities in which the US forces were cooperating with their Taiwanese counterparts.

Taiwan’s United Daily News, followed by other media outlets, reported that the US Marine Raiders were in Taiwan for four weeks from Monday to help train Taiwanese marines in skills including assault boat and speedboat infiltration operations, at Tsoying Naval Base in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan.

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Chieh Cheng, a national security researcher at the National Policy Foundation, a Taipei-based think tank affiliated with the Kuomintang, the main opposition party, said any training of Taiwanese forces by the Marine Raiders would help strengthen the island to counter a possible landing on its offshore islets by the mainland’s People’s Liberation Army.

“Taiwan’s special marine forces would be able to learn new operational skills, including the most effective and efficient ways to kidnap, counter-kidnap and strike the enemy in their amphibious landing attempts during a conflict with the PLA,” he said.

Chieh said such training could hone infiltration and reconnaissance skills and boost anti-terrorism capability.

Beijing has stepped up its military activities aimed at the self-ruled island, which it regards as its territory, to be brought into its fold by force if necessary. The PLA has conducted more than 1,735 air sorties and 1,032 maritime incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone this year.

On Wednesday, the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing said of the military mission that it opposed any form of official contact between Taipei and Washington.

But in a statement to American military newspaper Stars and Stripes the same day, Pentagon spokesman John Supple called the reports “inaccurate”.

“The United States remains committed to our one-China policy,” he said, adding that US actions were also guided by the Taiwan Relations Act and based on an assessment of Taiwan’s defence needs, as has been the case for more than 40 years.

Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, agreeing to observe the one-China policy that underscores US-China relations. But it also enacted the Taiwan Relations Act to underline substantive ties with the island.

Taiwan’s defence ministry on Thursday called on the local media not to report about the so-called mission, saying claims about it were untrue.

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An analyst said the United States might prefer to be in control of disclosures of military exchanges with the island.

“There have been gradually increased disclosures of US-Taiwan military exchanges or joint activities for more than a decade, but mostly revealed by the US side,” said Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, a strategic studies and international relations professor at Tamkang University in Taipei.

He cited examples including the Pentagon releasing photos of joint training, virtual meetings and handshakes between US and Taiwanese officials.

“The key, I guess, is to keep the control in the hands of the US,” he said.

Lawrence Chung covers major news in Taiwan, ranging from presidential and parliament elections to killer earthquakes and typhoons.

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