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Asked about the reports, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian avoided attacks on Washington and instead repeated standard Beijing talking points, saying that the United States should recognize the “high sensitivity” of the issue and halt military contact with Taiwan.
Asked about the reports, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian avoided attacks on Washington and instead repeated standard Beijing talking points, saying that the United States should recognize the “high sensitivity” of the issue and halt military contact with Taiwan. (Molly Crawford/U.S. Navy)

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 United States Marines have been stationed on the self-ruled island for more than a year to strengthen its defenses against intensifying Chinese aggression.

Asked about the reports, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian avoided attacks on Washington and instead repeated standard Beijing talking points, saying that the United States should recognize the “high sensitivity” of the issue and halt military contact with Taiwan.

“China will take all necessary measures to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Zhao said.

China claims the island of 24 million people as part of its sovereign territory, threatening to take control by force if Taiwan’s government formally declares independence. But proudly democratic Taiwan considers itself a country and has shown no interest in submitting to Chinese Communist Party rule.

About two dozen U.S. troops, including a special-operations unit and a contingent of Marines, have been in Taiwan to train military forces for more than a year, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, citing unnamed U.S. officials.

Taiwan’s 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 last year denied Marine special operatives were training in Taiwan after the island’s military tacitly acknowledged the change to regular exchanges.

In a speech at the Yushan military forum in Taipei on Friday, Taiwan’s 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 region.

Response on Chinese social media was muted on Friday, suggesting censors were tamping down discussion. The relative silence about Taiwan on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, contrasted with a 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 did post 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” immediately by the People’s Liberation Army.

On Weibo, Hu Xijin, editor in chief of Chinese state-backed Global Times, a stridently nationalist tabloid, taunted Washington for only sending 24 soldiers without fanfare, instead of openly setting up a base. “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 sharply escalated its military aggression toward the island. In the past week, the Chinese air force flew a record150-odd warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.

Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng, in response to the warplane drills, said that military tensions across the Taiwan Strait were at their most serious in more than 40 years.

Chiu further predicted, without providing details, 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. It has the capacity now, but it will not start a war easily, having to take many other things into consideration,” he said.

The dire warning comes as Beijing has vocally 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 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 without taking sides in the dispute.

China has also poured scorn on the emerging Quad partnership and a new pact known as Aukus for the United States and Britain to provide Australia with technology to build nuclear-powered submarines — both efforts to counter Chinese military aggression in the South China Sea and broader 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 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’s actions 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 on Friday at the Yushan forum in Taipei by former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who warned that “it’s quite possible that Beijing could lash out disastrously very soon.”

His visit to Taipei, and 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 troubled bilateral relationship. Senior Australian political leaders have said Abbott made the trip in a private capacity.

Abbott was unapologetic, saying that “nothing is more pressing right now” than showing support for Taiwan. “I don’t think America could stand by and watch Taiwan [be] swallowed up,” he added.

Miller reported from Sydney. The Washington Post’s Lyric Li in Seoul, and Alicia Chen and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.

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