US and Taiwan bolster military ties as Beijing flexes muscles in region
Washington has taken renewed interest in island as strategic counterweight to Beijing, analysts say
The United States has stepped up military cooperation and exchanges with Taiwan, despite the mainland warning this would damage Sino-US relations.
The move was part of Washington’s rebalancing towards Asia to counter China’s growing military influence in the region, especially in the South China Sea, analysts said.
The cooperation ranged from planned weapons deliveries to invitations for senior Taiwanese defence officers to take part in major US military activities in the Pacific, underscoring Washington’s determination to make good use of the island as a counterweight to Beijing, they said.
In December last year, the US Senate approved the sale of four Perry-class frigates worth US$370 million to Taiwan.
The cooperation became more concrete last month after China flexed its military muscles in the South China Sea by issuing warnings eight times to an approaching US surveillance plane with a CNN video crew on board. On May 22, the US Senate Armed Services Committee inserted provisions that would promote military cooperation with Taiwan in the 2016 National Defence Authorisation Act.
The bill, which will soon be submitted to the full floor for a vote, includes a section on Taiwan’s asymmetric military capabilities and joint training activities with the Pentagon, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported.
“The support should consist of fast-attack craft, coastal-defence cruise missiles, rapid runway repair systems, offensive mines and submarines optimised for defence of the Taiwan Strait,” the agency said.
The bill also calls for the US to allow Taiwanese forces to participate in training activities hosted by the US, particularly those emphasising the defence of Taiwan from a missile attack, maritime blockade and amphibious invasion by the People’s Liberation Army.
More significantly, it calls for the US to invite Taiwan to take part in air-to-air combat training, especially in exercises conducted at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, and Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
A Taiwan defence ministry official said that before the Senate committee inserted the provisions, the US Pacific Command in Hawaii had already invited Taiwan to take part in a symposium on amphibious warfare along with 20 other countries on May 21.
“Major General Liu Yu-ping from the marines took part in the US Pacific Command Amphibious Leaders Symposium, which bars China’s participation in line with the 2000 US National Defence Authorisation Act,” the official said.
He said Taiwan’s 601st Air Cavalry Brigade had also signed ties with the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade of the US army’s Pacific Command and the two would stage joint combat training and mutual learning programmes later this year.
The Taiwanese psychological and political warfare squadron had also signed ties with the command’s 7th Psychological Operations Group and would exchange information and conduct joint training, the official noted.
In an unprecedented move, the de facto US embassy in Taiwan posted a photo on its Facebook page on Thursday that showed Taiwan’s Chief of General Staff Yen De-fa with military leaders of other countries attending a major US military event in Hawaii.
Under the picture was a caption that read: “General Yen De-fa, Chief of the General Staff (pictured), and Admiral Lee Hsi-ming both attended the ceremony in recognition of the strong security cooperation relations between the US and Taiwan.”
The joint ceremony at Pearl Harbour on May 27 saw Admiral Harry B Harris Jnr assuming command of the Pacific Command and Admiral Scott Swift taking over the US Pacific Fleet.
Analysts said the US used to play down all military contacts with Taipei to avoid antagonising Beijing, which has warned Washington against selling arms and engaging in high-level military exchanges with the island.
“The [recent] action shows the US has found the need to further strengthen its military contact and cooperation with Taiwan due to the growing strategic importance of the island in the region, especially as Beijing plays an aggressive role in the disputed South China Sea region,” said Lin Cheng-yi, a research fellow at the Institute of European and American Studies at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica.
He said the US, in rebalancing towards Asia, had found it had not done enough to support the strategic role Taiwan played in the region.
“By stepping up military cooperation and even making public Taiwanese military leaders taking part in US military events, Washington wants to show that Taiwan is still its important informal ally,” Lin said. “It also means that Taiwan will remain a key pawn for the US in its Asia rebalancing strategy.”
The mainland has called for cooperation with Taiwan, one of the claimants of the disputed Spratly Islands, in countering the US’ growing influence in the region. But Taiwan has responded by calling for peaceful resolution of the dispute and joint development of resources in the region.