Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen confirmed to CNN during an interview on Wednesday that U.S. troops were on the ground in Taiwan helping the island prepare for a possible military invasion from communist China, warning that the threat from China is “increasing every day.”
Ing-wen said that relations between China and Taiwan have dramatically soured over the last several years because China’s vision for the region is now “very different” than it was in the past.
Ing-wen told CNN that the U.S. troops in Taiwan were there to increase the islands’ “defense capability.” She later added that she has faith that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if China took military action because of “the long-term relationship that we have with the U.S. and also the support the people of the U.S., as well as the Congress, and the administration has been very helpful.”
WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Is Taiwan more safe today than it was when you became president in 2016?
TSAI ING-WEN, TAIWAN’S PRESIDENT: If it’s a threat from China, it’s increasing every day.
RIPLEY: The Mainland’s massive military, 2 million strong more powerful than ever. China flew 150 war planes near Taiwan in just five days this month. This democracy of more than 23 million governs separately from the mainland for more than 70 years since the end of China’s Civil War, stillseen as a breakaway province in the eyes of Beijing’s communist rulers who have never controlled the island. China has pressured most of the world to sever formal diplomatic ties with Taipei. Chinese President Xi Jinping says reunification is only a matter of time. Are you interested in speaking with President Xi? Would you like to have more communication with him?
ING-WEN: Well, more communication would be helpful so that we would reduce misunderstanding given our differences, differences in terms of our political systems. We can sit down and talk about our differences and try to make arrangement so that we’ll be able to coexist peacefully.
RIPLEY: Your predecessor, as you know, did meet with President Xi. Why do you think that things — the communication has really gone south since 2016?
ING-WEN: Well, I think the situation has changed a lot and China’s plan towards the region is very different.
RIPLEY: That plan includes war threats over Taiwan, clashes with Japan and the East China Sea and militarizing manmade islands in the South China Sea, posing a direct challenge to seven decades of U.S. military supremacy in the Indo-Pacific. In response, the U.S. ramped up arms sales to Taiwan, selling the island $5 billion in weapons last year. President Tsai confirms exclusively to CNN, U.S. support goes beyond selling weapons. Does that support include sending some U.S. service members to help train Taiwanese troops?
ING-WEN: Well, yes. We have a wide range of cooperation with the U.S., aiming at increasing our defense capability.
RIPLEY: How many U.S. service members are deployed in Taiwan right now?
ING-WEN: Not as many as people saw.
RIPLEY: Defense Department records show the number of U.S. troops in Taiwan increased from 10 in 2018 to 32 earlier this year. The State Department asked for more Marines to safeguard the unofficial U.S. Embassy in Taipei. Any U.S. military presence in Taiwan, big or small, is perceived by Beijing as an act of aggression, state media says.
When reports surfaced earlier this month of U.S. Marines training Taiwanese troops, China released this video, a training exercise targeting Taiwan independence and interference by external forces like the U.S. A warning for President Joe Biden, who vowed to defend Taiwan at this CNN town hall last week.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: So are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense —
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes.
COOPER: — if China attacked?
BIDEN: Yes, we have a commitment to do that.
RIPLEY: The White House later walked back Biden’s comments. They seem to contradict the long-standing U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity, leaving U.S. military involvement in Taiwan, an open question.
ING-WEN: People have different interpretation of what President Biden has said.
RIPLEY: Do you have faith that the United States would defend Taiwan if the Mainland were to try to move on Taiwan?
ING-WEN: I do have faith, and given the long-term relationship that we have the U.S. and also the support the people of the U.S., as well as the Congress, and the administration has been very helpful.
RIPLEY: Taiwan’s defense minister says China could launch a full-scale war by 2025. He says military tensions are the worst in more than 40 years.
ING-WEN: We have to expedite our military reform so that we have the ability to defend ourselves. And given the size of Taiwan compared to the size of the PRC, developing asymmetric capability is the key for us.
RIPLEY: How prepared is Taiwan today?
ING-WEN: We are trying to make us stronger in every aspects and increase our military capability and our international support.
RIPLEY: Support bolstered, she says, by Taiwan’s critical importance to the global supply chain. The island is a world leader in semiconductors. Taiwan was Asia’s fastest growing economy last year — a fact President Tsai proudly points out over lunch.