Taiwan Wants to Expand Its Military Attache Office on Oahu

by Braxton Taylor

Taiwan is seeking to increase the size of its military attache office at its de facto consulate in Honolulu as the self-ruled island democracy looks to tighten ties with the United States and bolster defenses against potential Chinese military attacks.

Diplomatic and military officials confirmed details of the plan to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on the condition of anonymity. U.S. and Taiwanese officials are often tight-lipped when discussing specifics in military cooperation. China considers Taiwan a rogue province, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping has vowed to bring the island under Beijing’s control—by force if necessary.

Officially, the United States has not diplomatically recognized Taiwan since normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1979. But the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 maintained de facto ties and requires the U.S. to provide Taiwan with weapons “of a defensive nature ” and “resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

The Taiwanese government has maintained a small detachment of four military officers at the Taipei Economic &Cultural Office in Hono ­lulu, and seeks to expand it to as many as 10 to increase coordination and intelligence sharing with U.S. military forces in the Pacific.

Taiwanese diplomats and military personnel assigned to TECO in Honolulu regularly hold meetings with top U.S. military officials and with their counterparts at other consulates on Oahu. They also help facilitate visits by senior Taiwanese officials and dignitaries—Taiwan’s Navy chief Adm. Tang Hua made a stop earlier this month in Hawaii to meet top officials and attend a change-of-command ceremony at Pearl Harbor for the U.S. Pacific Fleet on April 4.

“There’s no substitute for being able to meet often face to face, ” said Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Manoa. “Having a group like military attaches based here, they’re simply going to have more and richer and deeper kinds of contact with kinds of folks on the American side that they want to talk than if they were not physically based here or if they’re only visiting temporarily once in a while.”

Taiwan also has military attaches in Washington, D.C., to talk to senior Pentagon leaders. But Ralph Cossa, a retired U.S. Air Force officer and former president of Honolulu think tank Pacific Forum, said for Taiwan to have a direct line with commanders on Oahu is equally important because “if there is going to be a war fought with China, it will be fought by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and it’ll be controlled out of Hawaii.”

Cossa said the U.S. and Taiwan seek to maintain the status quo arrangement by deterring a potential Chinese invasion altogether, and argued, “Certainly, the way you do that in peacetime is by enhancing military ties and conducting training of the Taiwan forces. In the past we’ve been very hesitant to do that.”

Since 1979, U.S. military leaders have adopted an approach they called “train the trainers, ” in which small numbers of Taiwanese military personnel—usually senior—come to the United States for training and then to go back to Taiwan and train their forces there.

Taiwanese military personnel have at times quietly trained in Hawaii and studied in Honolulu at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Waikiki. For a time, some even participated in workshops at the center alongside Chinese students when relations appeared to be improving.

Hawaii is also a key transit point for military equipment transfers. In 2022 a Taiwanese F-16 fighter jet made international headlines when its landing gear failed as it landed at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport and briefly shut down a runway.

A U.S. military official told the Star-Advertiser it was part of a “routine ferry mission ” in which American pilots fly planes to and from Taiwan as part of an “ongoing security assistance program ” that falls under the U.S. State Department and its foreign military sales program.

But Cossa said the military relationship is gradually moving toward more hands-on cooperation. Reports have emerged in recent years of U.S. special operations troops training in Taiwan, and in March, Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng acknowledged U.S. service members’ apparent training with Taiwanese forces on some of Taiwan’s outer islands.

Hawaii also could see more joint training in coming years. Recently passed iterations of Congress’ National Defense Appropriations Act have included calls for increased cooperation, including inviting Taiwan to the biennial Rim of the Pacific naval war games held in Hawaii. There are also discussions of expanding land-based training.

“Hawaii is potentially a place for some units of the Taiwan military to train, ” Roy said. “There’s been discussion, for example, about an agreement between the U.S. National Guard and some Taiwan military units to do some training in Hawaii because there’s a similar kind of climate and terrain and foliage. So it’s a logical and appropriate place for Taiwan soldiers to train more than lots of other places.”

Cossa said that in the past when Taiwanese officials and policy researchers attended conferences in Honolulu, some didn’t feel a sense of urgency and considered the prospect of an all-out invasion by China unlikely. Cossa said their attitudes have changed sharply since the Russian military pushed into western Ukraine in 2022.

” Ukraine was really a wake-up call not just for Americans and for Europe, but for countries in Asia as well—and certainly for Taiwan—that, wow, even in the 21st century countries attack other countries, ” Cossa said. “They have started taking the whole concept of territorial defense extremely seriously.”

President Joe Biden and U.S. diplomats have sought to ease tensions with direct talks with Chinese leaders. During a webinar hosted in March by the East-West Center, U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns said, “I think 2023, especially the second half of 2023, led to a relatively more stable relationship between our government in the United States and the government of the People’s Republic of China.”

“There’s a sense of modest improvement in U.S.- China relations, and particularly over Taiwan, ” said Roy, but he said the situation is “fragile.”

Taiwanese voters recently elected Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te to succeed current President Tsai Ing-wen. Lai’s inauguration will be in May. Roy said that currently there is a “continuation of the usual kinds of pressure on Taiwan from the Chinese side, but not a dramatic increase, ” and that Chinese leaders will watch the inauguration closely.

“The Chinese side wants him to say, in some form or other, that he recognizes that Taiwan is part of China, ” said Roy. “And he’s very unlikely to say that.”

Though Lai has been defiant in his rhetoric and pledged that Taiwan would not bow to Beijing, he has said he ultimately wants to avoid any war. During his presidential campaign, Lai told Time Magazine that ” Taiwan hopes to be friends with China—we don’t wish to be enemies. We would welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping to Taiwan and prepare Taiwanese delicacies for him to try.”

Xi has reportedly directed Chinese military leaders to build up and train their forces to be capable of seizing Taiwan by 2027. But analysts emphasize that having the capability doesn’t necessarily mean intent.

“I doubt that Xi Jinping has already decided that he will invade Taiwan—whether it’s 2027 or any other particular year, ” Roy said. “I think he would much prefer to have the capability and intimidate Taiwan and the United States into the outcome that he wants without having to unleash military forces and do it the messy way.”

Roy said that he believes Xi ultimately wants to put his military forces in a position where ” the United States shrinks from the idea of defending Taiwan and Taiwan itself is intimidated into seeking a negotiated settlement so that Taiwan, in some form, becomes formally part of the People’s Republic of China.”

Cossa argues that Taiwan has never been part of the PRC and that the island’s history always has made the question of where it fits controversial.

Taiwan is home to a mixture of Indigenous groups and an ethnic Chinese majority that are largely descendants of settlers who started arriving in the late 17th century to work in a colony set up by the Dutch East India Co. The island ultimately would be invaded and fought over by both Imperial China and Imperial Japan, with Japan controlling it until the end of World War II.

After the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949 with the defeat of nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang and his forces fled across the Taiwan Strait to set up a government-in-exile and imposed repressive martial law over the island. In 1987 martial law was lifted, and since then the island has democratized, developed a high-tech economy and become a key trade partner for the United States.

But Taiwan’s government is still formally called the Republic of China, and its official position is that it is still China’s legitimate government—though younger generations of Taiwanese increasingly consider themselves to be their own country. Cossa said that “if Taiwan were to declare independence tomorrow, to say, ‘We are now the Republic of Taiwan ; we are no longer claiming that we are part of the mainland or the rightful government of all Chinese, ‘ the Chinese military would in all probability respond—whether they’re ready or not.”

Roy warned conflict also could be sparked “if there’s an action by the United States that really feeds Chinese preconceptions of the United States pushing Taiwan toward formal independence.” He noted a controversial 2022 visit to Taiwan by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which prompted China to cut off all military-to-military dialogue with the U.S. and to ramp up military exercises around Taiwan.

Roy said Pelosi’s visit “was strategically unwise because it did nothing in particular to improve the defense of Taiwan. But it created maximum hysteria on the Chinese side and and invited the Chinese to take advantage of a good opportunity to practice some of the tactics that they might use if they did decide to use military force against Taiwan.”

But Cossa believes an invasion is far from certain, saying, “If 2027 comes around, and the Chinese are more confident that they’re capable of doing that but there’s no catalyst … then Xi Jinping has to ask himself, ‘What are the risks involved ?'”

“Xi Jinping doesn’t need to to conquer Taiwan to become emperor for life—he’s already got the job, ” Cossa said. “The only thing that could cause him to lose that job would be to try to take Taiwan and fail.”

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