WASHINGTON—A U.S. special-operations unit and a contingent of Marines have been secretly operating in Taiwan to train military forces there, U.S. officials said, part of efforts to shore up the island’s defenses as concern regarding potential Chinese aggression mounts.
About two dozen members of U.S. special-operations and support troops are conducting training for small units of Taiwan’s ground forces, the officials said. The U.S. Marines are working with local maritime forces on small-boat training. The American forces have been operating in Taiwan for at least a year, the officials said.
The U.S. special-operations deployment is a sign of concern within the Pentagon over Taiwan’s tactical capabilities in light of Beijing’s yearslong military buildup and recent threatening moves against the island.
Taiwan and U.S. officials have expressed alarm over nearly 150 flights near Taiwan in the past week by Chinese military aircraft. The Chinese aircraft have included J-16 jet fighters, H-6 strategic bombers and Y-8 submarine-spotting aircraft and have set a record for such sorties, according to the Taiwan government.
The Chinese flights, while not entering the area Taiwan defines as its airspace, have been a reminder of the Communist Party’s view of Taiwan as a part of China. Beijing has vowed to take control of the island by force if necessary. Top U.S. military officials testified earlier this year that Beijing is likely to try to use force in its designs on Taiwan within the next six years. Other officials have said China’s timeline could be sooner than that.
Taiwan’s defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, warned Wednesday that China would be able to launch a full-scale attack on Taiwan with minimal losses by 2025.
White House and Pentagon officials declined to comment on the deployment of the U.S. military force. There was no immediate response to requests for comment from Taipei. The deployment is rotational, the U.S. officials said, meaning that members of the U.S. units serve on a variable schedule.
China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it urged the U.S. to adhere to prior agreements and to cease military aid to Taiwan. “China will take all necessary steps to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” it said.
Asian media reports last year suggesting a possible U.S. Marine deployment in Taiwan were never confirmed by U.S. officials. The presence of U.S. special operations forces hasn’t been previously reported.
The special-operations unit and the Marine contingent are a small but symbolic effort by the U.S. to increase Taipei’s confidence in building its defenses against potential Chinese aggression. Current and former U.S. government officials and military experts believe that deepening ties between U.S. and Taiwan military units is better than simply selling Taiwan military equipment.
The U.S. has sold Taiwan billions of dollars of military hardware in recent years, but current and former officials believe Taiwan must begin to invest in its defense more heavily, and smartly.
“Taiwan badly neglected its national defense for the first 15 years or so of this century, buying too much expensive equipment that will get destroyed in the first hours of a conflict, and too little in the way of cheaper but lethal systems—antiship missiles, smart sea mines and well-trained reserve and auxiliary forces—that could seriously complicate Beijing’s war plans,” said Matt Pottinger, a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution who served as a deputy national security adviser during the Trump administration.
Mr. Pottinger said Taiwan’s overall military spending was similar to that of Singapore, which has a quarter of Taiwan’s population and “doesn’t have China breathing down its neck.” Mr. Pottinger said he was unaware of any American troop deployment to Taiwan.
In May, Christopher Maier, who later became assistant secretary of defense for special operations, told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing that the U.S. should be considering strongly such a deployment of forces to help Taiwan strengthen its capabilities. Mr. Maier, who worked at the Pentagon under the Trump administration, didn’t say that special-operations forces already were operating there.
Mr. Maier told senators in May that American special-operations units could show forces in Taiwan how to defend against an amphibious landing or train for dozens of other operations needed to defend the island.
“I do think that is something that we should be considering strongly as we think about competition across the span of different capabilities we can apply,” he said then, referring to special-operations units.
While some aspects of the U.S. deployment might be classified, it is also considered politically sensitive given the tense relations between the U.S. and China, according to U.S. officials.
U.S.-China ties are strained over trade, the Covid-19 pandemic, human rights and regional security, including in the South China Sea. National-security adviser Jake Sullivan met in Zurich on Wednesday with Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat.
China is likely to view the presence of the U.S. military forces as a violation of commitments made by Washington in past agreements. In one establishing formal relations between the U.S. and China in 1979, Washington agreed to sever formal ties with Taiwan, terminate a defense agreement and withdraw its forces from the island. The U.S. later said it would reduce arms sales to Taiwan.
A Pentagon spokesman pointed to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress and said that law provides for assessments of Taiwan’s defense needs and the threat posed by the People’s Republic of China, or PRC.
“I would note the PRC has stepped up efforts to intimidate and pressure Taiwan, including increasing military activities conducted in the vicinity of Taiwan, which we believe are destabilizing and increase the risk of miscalculation,” the spokesman, John Supple, said in a statement.
The Trump administration loosened rules that restricted contacts with Taiwan by U.S. officials, in a move that was applauded at the time by Taiwan officials. The restrictions limited U.S.-Taiwan exchanges to avoid provoking China.
The Biden administration has continued with some of its predecessor’s moves, sending a U.S. delegation to Taipei in April.
Before leaving office, the Trump administration declassified the U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, a 10-page document broadly outlining objectives for the region.
A section on Taiwan says that China will take “increasingly assertive steps to compel unification with Taiwan” and recommends that the U.S. “enable Taiwan to develop an effective asymmetric defense strategy and capabilities that will help ensure its security, freedom from coercion, resilience and ability to engage China on its own terms.”
The strategy also calls for a “combat-credible” U.S. military presence to prevent Chinese dominance in the area that includes Taiwan.
The document hasn’t been supplanted by a new Biden administration strategy, nor is it technically being implemented. Biden administration officials have acknowledged that there are areas of continuity between the two administrations on China policies.
Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com
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