US defense bill could open way to Taiwan joining RIMPAC naval exercise

U.S. troops have not been based on Taiwan since Washington established diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1979.
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US defense bill could open way to Taiwan joining RIMPAC naval exercise Taiwanese navy sailors taking part in the commissioning ceremony of a two guided missile frigates, at Kaohsiung's Zuoying naval base, Taiwan Nov. 8, 2018.

Taiwanese naval ships could join next year’s Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) for the first time under a defense policy bill for fiscal year 2022 passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Earlier this week the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly in support of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which defines the country’s defense policy and budget.

The bill suggests “conducting practical training and military exercises with Taiwan, including, as appropriate, inviting Taiwan to participate in the Rim of the Pacific exercise conducted in 2022” in order to support the development of Taiwan’s defense forces.

The NDAA bill still needs to be passed by the Senate before getting to President Joe Biden’s desk and “it will depend on Biden to decide whether inviting Taiwan to joint exercise is worth his political capital,” said Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.

“At the moment, I think the chance is 50/50 that an invitation would be granted,” Bitzinger said.

RIMPAC is the world’s largest multi-national maritime warfare exercise held every two years since 1974. Before that it was held annually. The exercise is hosted by the U.S. Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command and joined by navies from dozens of countries. China took part in 2014 and 2016.

“Taiwan attending RIMPAC would be very important politically as a sign of support by the U.S. and other attending nations,” said Grant Newsham, a retired U.S. Marine colonel who spent 2019 in Taiwan to research the island’s defense.

“If the Americans do not help Taiwan’s armed forces break out of over 40 years of isolation and give them the opportunity to train with somebody, Taiwan’s defense capabilities will not improve as they need to improve,” said Newsham. 

Until now, the U.S. military hasn’t conducted any bilateral and joint exercise with Taiwan but it was reported in October that a number of U.S. military trainers have been deployed in the island for at least a year.

The Wall Street Journal said that a small contingent of U.S. special forces soldiers and Marines are training Taiwan’s local ground and maritime forces.

The Pentagon did not comment on the report at that time but said that the U.S. “support for and defense relationship with Taiwan remains aligned against the current threat” from China.

U.S. troops have not been permanently based on the island since Washington established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979.

A Singaporean Navy guided-missile frigate arriving in preparation for Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) military exercises at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, U.S. June 25, 2018. Credit: U.S. Navy via Reuters.Asymmetric defensive capabilities

"China will react strongly, as usual, if Taiwan gets invited to RIMPAC,” said Bitzinger from Singapore’s RSIS.

“It would stoke further tensions with Beijing but I don’t think this alone would lead to an eventual clash,” he added.

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province and vows to reunite it with the mainland, by force if necessary. Chinese military activity in the Taiwan Strait has intensified in recent months, with hundreds of military aircraft sorties into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in what observers see as an intimidation campaign.

Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said in October that the cross-strait tension was "the most serious" in more than 40 years.

When asked about the NDAA earlier this month, Chiu said he had not seen the details of the U.S. legislation. He indicated that Taiwan needed to have an internal discussion on the applicability of the bill to Taiwan. He said Taiwan would utilize and evaluate what it could benefit from.

On Wednesday, the Pentagon's top official for the Indo-Pacific said “bolstering Taiwan's self-defenses is an urgent task and an essential feature of deterrence.”

Ely Ratner, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that China’s air and sea campaigns around Taiwan “increased the likelihood of miscalculation between armed forces in the Indo-Pacific.”

Responding to Ratner’s statement at the hearing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesman said the U.S. has “repeatedly cited the so-called ‘China threat’ rhetoric as an excuse to justify its expansion of military strength.”

The U.S. is Taiwan’s largest arms supplier with agreed deals worth more than $23 billion since 2010.

However the $768.2-billion defense policy bill also calls to assist Taiwan “in the domestic production of defensive asymmetric capabilities including through the transfer of intellectual property, co-development, or co-production arrangements.”

Experts say Taiwan’s defense concept is based on a strategy of asymmetric warfare as there is a widening gap between China and the island’s capabilities.

Taiwan launched the construction of its Indigenous Defensive Submarine program in November 2020 and aims to acquire as many as eight diesel-electric submarines at an estimated cost of $16 billion.

In March, the U.S. approved the export of sensitive technology including three major types of equipment — digital sonar systems, integrated combat systems and an auxiliary equipment system (periscopes) – for the fleet.

With additional reporting by RFA's Mandarin Service.


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