Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen has confirmed that U.S. military personnel are currently on the democratic island as part of "military exchanges," as she said the country's 23 million residents wouldn't "bow to pressure" in the face of the growing military threat from China.
Speaking in an interview with CNN, Tsai was asked how many U.S. military personnel were in Taiwan, before responding: "Not as many as you'd think."
"We have a wide range of cooperation with the U.S. aiming at increasing our defense capability," she said.
The last U.S. garrison left Taiwan in 1979, when Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing, and Tsai's comments are the first official acknowledgement from a Taiwanese leader of U.S. military ties beyond the sale of arms mandated under the Taiwan Relations Act.
Tsai also said she had "faith" that the United States would step in to help defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, and that her government is taking steps to boost its military capabilities and improve its defense capabilities.
"There should be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people will bow to pressure," Tsai told the station.
Tsai also called on regional democratic partners Japan, South Korea, and Australia, to help support the island.
"When authoritarian regimes demonstrate expansionist tendencies, democratic countries should come together to stand against them. Taiwan is on the front lines," Tsai said.
"Here is this island of 23 million people trying hard every day to protect ourselves and protect our democracy and making sure that our people have the kind of freedom they deserve," Tsai said.
"The way you defend a big piece of land is different from the way you protect a small island, so we have to change the traditional thinking about how a military should be structured," she said.
But she said the outcome of ongoing tensions with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has vowed to annex Taiwan despite never having ruled or controlled the island, would have repercussions for the rest of the world.
"If we fail, then that means people that believe in these values would doubt whether these are values that they [should] be fighting for," she said.
Taiwan's defense minister Chiu Kuo-cheng confirmed that there is "military cooperation" between his country and the U.S., but not enough to amount to "having troops stationed here."
Asked to elaborate, Chiu said the exchanges were "quite a lot and quite frequent" and had been going on for a long time, on a broad range of topics.
"There is no connection between personnel exchanges and the stationing of troops," Chiu told reporters after Tsai's interview aired.
US comments welcomed
Taiwan foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou welcomed recent comments from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling on United Nations member states to welcome the democratic nation's participation in the work of U.N. agencies.
"Taiwan's spirit of respect for human rights and the rule of law is consistent with U.N. values," Ou said, calling Blinken's statement "of great significance."
"Since the Biden administration took office ... it has continued to show strong support for our participation in international organizations, and concern for the unreasonable threat to Taiwan and free democracies around the world from China," she said.
Su Tze-yun of Taiwan's Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a defense ministry think-tank, said Tsai's comments suggested a good deal of mutual trust between Washington and Taipei, and that Tsai's comments should be taken in the context of Blinken's call for her government's participation at the U.N..
Su said Tsai's reference to China's "expansionism" had its parallels in Europe during the 1930s.
“The way President Tsai described China’s military expansionism sounded very similar to the experience of Europe [during the Third Reich]," Su said. "Hitler also used similar methods of military intimidation and coercion to annex some countries in a gradual manner."
"Then, the German army moved [outwards], testing the international community step by step, chopping away [at other country's territory] to serve its military and political need for expansion, finally leading to a world war," Su said.
"President Tsai reminded the world's democracies of the dangers of [China's] expansionism."
Chieh Chung, a research fellow at the National Policy Foundation on the democratic island of Taiwan, said any active-duty U.S. military personnel are either present as observers of the island's own military exercises, or as training consultants in special operations.
"We're talking about small numbers of people, who don't stay long, and who don't get involved in active combat tasks," Chieh said. "It's about training, consultancy, and observation, which is a very different role from that of a long-term garrison."
International relations expert Chang Kuo-cheng said it isn't unusual for the U.S. military to offer advice and training to international allies.
"The only real significance is that the U.S. can send its military personnel to Taiwan without China's permission," Chang told RFA. "It is obvious that Taiwan is not a part of China, and China cares about the political significance of that fact."
Tsai told CCN that she isn't abandoning the possibility of improved relations with Beijing, saying she is willing to hold talks with CCP general secretary Xi Jinping.
Tsai has previously indicated she is willing to enter government-to-government talks with China on an equal footing, an idea that is anathema to the CCP, which insists that Taiwan is a 'region,' not a country.
"We have said again and again that we want to have dialogue with China and this is the best way to avoid misunderstanding, miscalculation, and misjudgment in the management of the cross-strait relations," Tsai said.
But she added: "[They're] more ambitious, more expansionist [than before]. And therefore things that were acceptable to them, may not be acceptable to them now."
Earlier this month, Xi told a conference on the 1911 revolution that toppled the Qing Dynasty and led to the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen, that he is determined to bring Taiwan under Chinese control.
"The historical task of complete unification of the Motherland must necessarily be realized ... without fail," Xi said, accusing "Taiwan independence forces" of trying to undermine the process.
Taiwan operates as a self-governing state using the 1911 Republic of China name. Recent opinion polls continue to show that its 23 million people have no wish to be forced to "unify" with China under the CCP.
China's Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist government under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek relocated to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists on the mainland.
The island began a transition to democracy following the death of Chiang's son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Hsia Hsiao-hwa and Raymond Chung.