The Chinese government on Thursday reiterated its long-standing opposition to any official and military contact between the United States and Taiwan in response to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s comments that US troops help train the island’s military.
Speaking with CNN in an exclusive interview Tuesday, Tsai became the first Taiwanese leader in decades to confirm publicly the presence of US troops on the island for training purposes and said the threat from Beijing is growing “every day.”
Tsai did not confirm the number of US military personnel in Taiwan, but said it was “not as many as people thought.” US Defense Department records showed the number of US troops in Taiwan increased from 10 in 2018 to 32 earlier this year.
“We have a wide range of cooperation with the US aiming at increasing our defense capability,” she added.
‘A dead end’
When asked about Tsai’s comments at a press briefing Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin stressed the importance of the “One China” principle as the foundation of US-China relations. Wang accused the US of destabilizing the region by “flexing its muscles” in the Taiwan Strait and warned that “Taiwan independence is a dead end.”
China’s rebuke to Tsai’s comments is only the most recent evidence of growing tension between the US and China over Taiwan. The island nation’s status and its relationship to the US – always a fraught issue for Beijing’s rulers – are now among the thorniest points of disagreement in the increasingly tense US-China relationship.
As China has increased military overflights into Taiwan’s airspace, US lawmakers have expressed concern about Beijing’s aggressive posturing and raised the prospect that it might act aggressively against Taiwan in the same way it reneged on its commitments to Hong Kong’s democratic independence by crushing dissent and legislative autonomy.
In her interview with CNN’s Will Ripley, Tsai expressed her desire for more communication with Chinese President Xi Jinping and described the current tensions between Beijing and Taipei as the “most challenging time for the Taiwanese people.”
She said while military tensions have escalated in the last few years, Taiwan has become more confident due to growing support from the international community and she said she has faith that the United States will come to its rescue if China were to launch an invasion.
Support for Taiwan is a consistent area of bipartisan agreement in Congress and across administrations, with Democrats and Republicans in the White House working to maintain the tricky balance required to support Taipei.
While the US has no official diplomatic ties with the island, it sells arms to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act, which dictates that the US must help Taipei defend itself.
At the same time, the US maintains formal diplomatic ties with China and acknowledges Beijing’s position that there is only one Chinese government. China’s ruling Communist Party claims sovereignty over Taiwan, a democratic island of more than 23 million people, despite the two sides being governed separately for over 70 years.
One former senior US official who worked on Asia policy told CNN that “having US military on Taiwan is not a game changer or a revolutionary thing,” or any change in US military posture, but instead could be described as an incremental move that is mainly driven by the need of training people on weapons systems that are being delivered to Taiwan.
“It’s not that the US is doing some bold maneuver where they’re trying to create a tripwire in Taiwan or change the defense posture on Taiwan, it’s more that some of the defense systems need training and after service and that ends up being done by US military,” the former official said. “It shows the US commitment to fulfill the Taiwan Relations Act of giving Taiwan the means to defend itself.”
US officials have repeatedly stressed that they seek stability in the Taiwan Strait as they grapple with China on a slew of other geopolitical issues and seek its cooperation on others, such as climate change. But the perception of a growing threat from China dominates in Washington.
‘Stunning’ military progress
The outgoing vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Hyten, described China as a “pacing threat” in remarks to reporters on Thursday.
“Calling China a pacing threat is a useful term, because the pace at which China is moving is stunning,” Hyten told reporters at a Defense Writers Group roundtable Thursday morning. “The pace they’re moving and the trajectory they’re on will surpass Russia and the United States if we don’t do something to change it. It will happen. So I think we have to do something.”
Hyten added that the US will have to work in concert with allies. “It’s not just the United States, but the United States and our allies, because that’s the thing that really changes the game,” Hyten said. “If it’s the United States only, it’s going to be problematic in five years. But if it’s the United States and our allies, I think we can be good for a while.”
Hyten’s comments come a week after a US hypersonic test failed not long after Beijing successfully tested what was widely seen to be a nuclear capable hypersonic missile. China insisted the launch was actually a routine spacecraft check.
A recent report by the Center for a New American Security that found the US would have few good options to respond without risking a major escalation if China were to seize one of Taiwan’s outlying islands.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are expressing concern about the situation.
Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, used a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Wednesday to tell a senior State Department official that he “would love to be very clear to the Chinese Communist Party about what would occur, not just on the part of the United States but of our allies and friends around the world, were they take kinetic action against the people of Taiwan and and think that that specificity might be helpful in helping them calculate just exactly what the cost – and I’m talking about the diplomatic and economic cost might be.”
On CNN’s Newsroom on Thursday morning, Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, urged caution when asked about China’s harsh response to Tsai’s comments about US troops in the interview with Ripley.
“Our official policy is a One China policy and it should continue to be a One China policy,” Markey said. “We do not want to in any way be precipitating a military conflict between China and the United States that would ultimately be catastrophic for both countries and for the rest of the world. We’re talking about two countries that have nuclear weapons that are already deployed.”
“There has to be ultimately a diplomatic resolution of any of the conflicts that we have with China including climate change and Taiwan,” Markey said. “There is no military solution to any of these issues.”
Taiwan’s Defense Minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, on Thursday appeared to try to ease tensions by telling lawmakers that US military trainers are only assisting Taiwanese troops with their training, but they are not “based” on the island.
This story has been updated with additional information.
CNN’s Eric Cheung in Taipei, Oren Liebermann and Alex Marquardt in Washington contributed to this report.