U.S. special operations forces and Marines have been deployed to Taiwan and secretly training its military for at least a year as China becomes increasingly aggressive with its territorial claim on the island, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
A couple of dozen special operators and support troops are training small units of Taiwan's ground forces, while a contingent of Marines is working with local maritime forces on small-boat training, according to the report, which cited unnamed U.S. officials.
The news report came amid a record-setting number of Chinese military flights around the island. The People's Liberation Army made a total of 149 military flights over four days, including 56 on Monday, The Associated Press reported.
It also comes at a time of heightened U.S.-China tensions over issues ranging from trade to human rights to COVID-19 and seems sure to further stoke Beijing's ire.
In a statement to the Journal, the Chinese foreign ministry said the country "will take all necessary steps to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity."
The Marine Corps on Thursday directed questions to the Pentagon, which declined to comment directly on the report when contacted by Military.com. A spokesman did release a general statement on the Pentagon's position toward China and Taiwan.
"I don't have any comments on specific operations, engagements, or training, but I would like to highlight that our support for and defense relationship with Taiwan remains aligned against the current threat posed by the People's Republic of China," spokesman John Supple wrote in an email statement.
Supple said the U.S. urges a peaceful resolution to the tensions over Taiwan, an island democracy just off the coast of the Chinese mainland that signed a mutual defense pact with America in 1954. Beijing considers it a breakaway province and increasingly has been asserting claims to the island despite tolerating some independence in the past.
The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid considered to be a mouthpiece for the Communist Party, in August warned that a U.S. troop presence on Taiwan would lead China to "destroy and expel U.S. troops in Taiwan by military means, and at the same time realize reunification by force." The editorial was a response to a since-deleted tweet from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, which incorrectly stated 30,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Taiwan.
Under a decades-old policy, the United States maintains "strategic ambiguity" toward Taiwan, meaning Washington does not explicitly say it would come to the island's defense in a conflict with China.
The policy is designed to avoid provoking Beijing while also not emboldening Taiwan into formally declaring independence, a move that could lead to a Chinese invasion.
As part of the "One China" policy, the United States also does not formally have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. But U.S. ties with Taipei City, the capital of Taiwan, have deepened in recent years. In the defense sphere, that has included billions of dollars in arms sales.
Defense officials also have issued increasingly stark warnings about China's designs toward Taiwan, including Adm. John Aquilino, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, telling lawmakers earlier this year that the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is "much closer to us than most think."
On Wednesday while arguing for a new arms spending package, Taiwan's defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, also warned that military tensions with China are the worst in 40 years and that Beijing could be able to launch a "full-scale" invasion by 2025.
During his confirmation hearing in May, Christopher Maier, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, told senators he believed Taiwan could benefit from special operations training for irregular warfare, but did not indicate such training was already being conducted.
"I do think that is something that we should be considering strongly as we think about competition across the span of different capabilities we can apply," Maier said.