As Congress heightens its support for Taiwan amid fears that China could invade in the next few years, calls are growing for more U.S. military training for the island's forces.
Last year's defense policy bill required the Pentagon and State Department to collaborate on creating a "comprehensive training program" to enhance interoperability between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries. The training should include, "as necessary," joint tabletop exercises, war games, full-scale military exercises and "an enduring rotational United States military presence that assists Taiwan in maintaining force readiness," according to the bill.
Asked at a House hearing this week about the timeline to conduct joint U.S.-Taiwanese military exercises, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. John Aquilino declined to answer in an unclassified setting.
The response left lawmakers concerned. Asked by Military.com whether he's confident the Pentagon will implement the defense bill requirement, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., the House Armed Services Committee member who questioned Aquilino about joint exercises, said, "Not based on the response I got."
In 2021, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen confirmed in an interview with CNN that a small number of U.S. troops were on the island training Taiwanese forces. The Wall Street Journal also reported in February that that presence would grow from about 30 U.S. troops to between 100 and 200 troops.
But direct U.S. military support for Taiwan is typically kept quiet to avoid angering China and inviting accusations that the United States is straying from its "One China" policy, in which Washington does not formally recognize Taiwanese sovereignty.
Gallagher, who also chairs a separate House committee focused on China, said a closed-door war game his China committee held this week underscored the importance of joint military exercises and training.
"Another thing that came out of the war game last night -- what are the assumptions we're making about our ability to fight in coordination with our allies and partners in the region?" Gallagher said Thursday. "What is our joint warfighting structure? It doesn't really exist right now. You don't want to make that up on the fly."
Officially, the United States maintains "strategic ambiguity" on Taiwan where Washington remains purposefully vague about whether it would come to the island's defense if China invades. Still, the United States overtly provides support for Taiwan to defend itself, chiefly through arms sales, as required under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.
And U.S. lawmakers have been getting louder in recent years about defending Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, strengthening ties with Taipei and questioning whether strategic ambiguity still makes sense.
Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., met with Tsai in California while she "transited" through the United States -- an euphemism Washington and Taipei use to avoid calling Taiwanese trips to the United States official visits. Several lawmakers from both parties also met with Tsai earlier in her transit in New York. And House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Taiwan that met with Tsai when she returned from her transit.
Lawmakers who met with Tsai said one of her top requests was more U.S. military training.
"We will provide training to your military -- not for war, but for peace," McCaul said at an April 8 lunch hosted by Tsai. "Projecting weakness only invites aggression and conflict. Projecting strength provides deterrence and promotes peace."
The stepped-up talk of military training comes amid fears that China could invade Taiwan sooner than later. Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has named "reunification" a top priority. The congressional overtures to Taiwan have also been met with China flexing its military muscles, including launching military drills earlier this month to practice encircling the island.
An Air Force general earlier this year predicted war with China could come as soon as 2025. Two years ago, Aquilino's predecessor at Indo-Pacific Command forecast that China could try to take Taiwan by force in 2027.
At the House hearing this week, Aquilino brushed off timeline predictions for a Chinese invasion, but vowed to lawmakers that U.S. forces are prepared for anything that may happen.
"For me, it doesn't matter what the timeline is," Aquilino said when asked about the 2027 prediction. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin "has given me this mission today. So I'm responsible to prevent this conflict today, and if deterrence were to fail, to be able to fight and win. So, the timeline, everybody will have an opinion on when it is. I think everybody is guessing."
And while Aquilino would not talk about joint exercises at the public hearing, he assured that U.S. military war games "absolutely" consider interoperability with Taiwanese forces.
Despite the congressional interest in bulking up military training for Taiwan, it's unclear whether there's more lawmakers can do to spur the Pentagon to do so.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, one of the lawmakers who met with Tsai in New York and told Politico that the president asked for "training, training, training," told Military.com this week she is leaving it to the Pentagon to decide how to handle Taiwan's request.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., who was part of the delegation that met with Tsai in California, suggested Congress' role is in funding any training.
"Congress realizes that a unified, highly trained, multilateral coalition is the force required to deter and, if necessary, defeat CCP [Chinese Communist Party] aggression in the Indo-Pacific," Wittman said in an emailed statement. "To this end, Congress must support [Indo-Pacific Command's] request for $117 million for International Security Cooperation Programs [ISCP]. ISCPs increase interoperability, strengthen command and control capabilities, and promote knowledge transfers that will be integral in the event of conflict."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.