TAIPEI, Taiwan — China reiterated calls for the United States to cut off military ties with Taiwan on Friday in a cautious response to reports that U.S. Marines have been stationed on the self-ruled island for more than a year to strengthen its defenses against intensifying Chinese aggression.
China claims the island of 24 million people as part of its own sovereign territory, threatening to take control by force if Taiwan formally declares independence. But proudly democratic Taiwan considers itself a country and has shown no interest in submitting to Communist Party rule.
About two dozen U.S. troops, including a Special Operations unit and a contingent of Marines, have been stationed in Taiwan to train military forces for more than a year, according to a Wall Street Journal report Thursday that cited unnamed U.S. government officials.
The Taiwanese foreign and defense ministries declined to comment on the report, which was a rare confirmation from U.S. officials of the nature of training programs in Taiwan. The Pentagon denied last year that Marine special operatives were training in Taiwan after the island’s military had tacitly acknowledged the change to the regular exchanges.
In a speech Friday in Taipei, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen did not address the matter but noted that developments in the Indo-Pacific were creating new tensions that “could have a devastating effect on international security and the global economy if they are not handled carefully.”
The revelation threatens to undermine the tentative start of a detente in the years-long diplomatic feud between Washington and Beijing, as well as to set off a spiral of military tension as the United States and its allies counter China’s efforts to gain a military advantage in the broader region.
Response on Chinese social media was muted, suggesting censors were tamping down discussion. The relative silence about Taiwan on Weibo, China’s service similar to Twitter, contrasted with the flurry of nationalist commentators jumping on news of damage to a U.S. nuclear-powered Navy submarine that collided with an object in the South China Sea.
The few who posted about the Taiwan training program called for a stern response from Beijing, with users asking why China “was not striking back?” or calling for Taiwan to be “liberated” by the Chinese military.
On Weibo, Hu Xijin, editor of the Chinese state-backed Global Times, a stridently nationalist tabloid, taunted Washington for sending only 24 soldiers without public fanfare. “Roll the dice,” he jeered. “See whose willpower is ultimately stronger when it comes to the Taiwan issue.”
China, angered by growing international sympathy and support for Taiwan from the United States and its allies, has escalated its military aggression toward the island. In the past week, the Chinese air force flew a record of nearly 150 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng, in response to the drills, said that military tensions across the Taiwan Strait were at their most serious in more than 40 years. Chiu further predicted that China’s military capacity would significantly reduce obstacles to a “full-scale” invasion of Taiwan within the next four years. “By 2025, China will bring the cost and attrition to its lowest,” Chiu said. “It has the capacity now, but it will not start a war easily, having to take many other things into consideration.”
The dire warning comes as Beijing has opposed efforts by Washington to strengthen support for Taiwan’s defenses, creating a delicate balancing act for the White House as it attempts to honor U.S. commitments to Taipei without sparking a potentially dangerous response from China.
In response to questions about Chinese military threats to Taiwan, the State Department has underscored that its commitments to Taiwan are “rock solid,” while President Biden said that he and Chinese President Xi Jinping had agreed to stick with the “Taiwan agreement,” an apparent reference to a U.S. policy that acknowledges China’s position of claiming Taiwan as its territory without taking sides in the dispute.
China has also poured scorn on the Quad partnership and the new Aukus pact for the United States and Britain to provide Australia with technology to build nuclear-powered submarines. Both are efforts to counter Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific region.
Speaking last month after the Aukus announcement, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd told The Washington Post it was “hypocritical” for China to criticize Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines given the rapid and recent expansion of its own naval fleet.
“China is yet to provide a publicly convincing strategic rationale as to why such an extensive, forward-leaning military posture is necessary,” Rudd said, adding that Beijing had created a “great regional arms bazaar” in the Asia Pacific “as people seek to arm themselves to defend against what they perceive as a growing Chinese military challenge.”
Pushback against Chinese military adventurism was evident in a speech Friday in Taipei by former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, who warned “it’s quite possible that Beijing could lash out disastrously very soon.” His visit to Taipei, and his pointed critique of Beijing, attracted controversy in Australia, where some commentators said the trip was unnecessarily provocative toward China and created a fresh headache in the already bilateral relationship. Senior Australian political leaders have said that Abbott made the trip in a private capacity.
Abbott was unapologetic, saying that “nothing is more pressing right now” than showing global support for Taiwan. “I don’t think America could stand by and watch Taiwan swallowed up,” Abbott added.
Michael E. Miller reported from Sydney. Lyric Li in Seoul and Alicia Chen and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.