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Mark Esper, US secretary of defence from 2019 to 2020, has described Beijing as an “opponent”. Photo: Reuters

Taiwan welcomes ‘loyal friend’ ex-US defence chief Mark Esper on four-day visit

  • Trump defence chief Mark Esper’s long-time support for Taiwan has included calling on the US to review its one-China policy
  • He heads three-member think tank team seeking to learn about security risks to Taiwan and due to meet President Tsai Ing-wen on Tuesday
Taiwan
Former US defence chief Mark Esper is on a four-day trip to Taiwan to learn about the latest security threats and other issues faced by the island, the foreign ministry in Taipei said.

Esper, whom the ministry described as a “loyal friend” of Taiwan, arrived in Taipei on Monday as the leader of a three-member delegation of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

The Trump-era secretary of defence has long been vocal on Taiwan issues, including calling on the US to review its one-China policy. A foreign ministry statement announcing the visit hailed his long-time support for the island.

Beijing sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory under its one-China principle. The US’ one-China policy, while recognising Beijing to be the legitimate government of China, only acknowledges but does not endorse its position that Taiwan is a part of China.

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Taiwan holds missile exercise amid rising tensions with mainland China

Taiwan holds missile exercise amid rising tensions with mainland China

“The [US] delegation will visit senior government officials and relevant departments, and will have exchanges with think tanks and business leaders here to learn about the latest developments [in Taiwan],” the ministry statement said.

It said topics on the agenda included the latest security situation in the region and Taiwan’s overall relations with the US and Europe.

“When Esper was the US secretary of defence, he had many times expressed his support and commitment for democratic Taiwan,” the ministry said.

“He is a loyal friend of Taiwan,” it added, saying Esper has continued to express concerns on peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

The war in Ukraine sparked by Russia’s February 24 invasion has brought growing global attention to the authoritarian threat faced also by Taiwan. “We hope [the US delegates’] visit would help increase American and European policymakers’ understanding of and support for Taiwan,” its foreign ministry said.

As Ukraine rides high on US-made HIMARS rockets, will Taiwan be next?

Esper, who served in the Donald Trump administration from 2019 to 2020, is travelling with Barry Pavel, senior vice-president and director of the Atlantic Council, and Stefano Stefanini, former Italian permanent representative to Nato and currently a non-resident senior fellow of the council.

They will meet Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Tuesday, according to her office spokesman Xavier Chang.

“The president hopes, through these exchanges, the US and Europe will deepen their support for Taiwan and cooperation among democratic partners in the world,” Chang said.

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‘The Chinese people defend their sovereignty,’ Beijing slams US for sending delegation to Taiwan

‘The Chinese people defend their sovereignty,’ Beijing slams US for sending delegation to Taiwan

Esper has long been vocal about what he perceives as the serious threats posed by Beijing to Washington and Taipei as well as the world.

In a recent talk at the Brookings Institution, another Washington-based think tank, Esper identified Beijing as the biggest foreign threat facing the US.

“Today I will describe [China] as our opponent,” he said at the event on Thursday. “To me, it’s clear that this is what they are.”

Esper said there were countless potential conflicts that could erupt in the Indo-Pacific, many of which could involve Beijing and take on global significance if allowed to boil over.

Washington needed to maintain vigilance in its mission to deter aggression from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), he said, to avoid potential scenarios of conflict in the region.

“The number one scenario, of course, is Taiwan,” Esper said, referring to the growing military threats posed by the PLA, including almost daily warplane sorties into the island’s air defence identification zone and the staging of war games nearby.

Military drills show Beijing’s increasingly aggressive stance towards Taiwan: analysts

Beijing claims sovereignty over Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway territory and vows to reclaim by force if necessary. It also warns countries that recognise Beijing and observe the one -China policy against establishing official contact with the island.

While Washington does not have diplomatic relations with Taipei, it maintains what the US State Department calls “robust unofficial” ties with it, and is its main international weapons supplier.

Esper has several times called on Washington to review its one-China policy, which he says is no longer useful, given the growing military expansion of Beijing which has changed the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and the region as a whole.

The US should also abandon its policy of “strategic ambiguity” in dealing with Beijing, according to Esper, as that could prevent Beijing from taking the risk of attacking Taiwan.

The US has long adopted this policy of neither confirming nor denying whether it would defend Taiwan against an invasion. President Joe Biden has in recent months sparked controversy by asserting the US “commitment” to defend Taiwan if it is attacked by the PLA. But the White House hastened to walk back his remarks each time, clarifying there was no change in the policy of strategic ambiguity.
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