The U.S. government is preparing evacuation plans for American citizens living in Taiwan, three sources told The Messenger.
The planning has been underway for at least six months and “it’s heated up over the past two months or so,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the planning.
The official said a “heightened level of tension” had driven the preparations. “It’s nothing you wouldn’t read in the news,” he told The Messenger. “Forces building up. China aligning with Russia on Ukraine.”
A source familiar with the matter cited Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine as an impetus for the planning. “Ukraine drove a relook at what the plans were,” he said.
The U.S. government hasn’t discussed the preparations publicly. The State Department declined a request for comment. While Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Martin Meiners declined to comment directly on the planning, he said, “We do not see a conflict in the Taiwan Strait as imminent or inevitable.”
The planning process has been kept quiet because it is a sensitive subject for the Taiwanese government, one source said; more generally, one former State Department official said, “Even talking about an [evacuation plan] starts people thinking something may be going on even if it is just prudent planning.”
As of 2019, more than 80,000 Americans were in Taiwan, which has faced rising threats from the Chinese military and Chinese leadership in recent years. Some U.S. officials have said an invasion could happen in the coming years, while other officials and experts doubt the Chinese government will resort to force in its longstanding pledge to “reunify” with Taiwan.
Planning for an evacuation from Taiwan “is a very prudent thing to do,” said Mark Cancian, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has run Taiwan war games and was involved in the 1975 evacuation of Americans from Saigon. But he added that these are only contingency plans. “The fact that the U.S. is doing this doesn’t mean that they expect there will be a war. It’s only a statement that there could be a war.”
The challenge in getting people out
The details of the U.S. plans are still being worked out, sources told The Messenger, including where U.S. citizens might be evacuated if it were deemed necessary.
All agreed: Any evacuation from Taiwan would pose multiple challenges.
“The physical geography of Taiwan is a big factor,” one source said, adding that there is often only one main route between any two points and that the mountainous island’s many tunnels could become chokepoints. If evacuations were ordered, it is likely that hundreds of thousands of other foreigners in Taiwan – and Taiwanese citizens – would be on those roads as well.
General State Department guidance urges citizens abroad to use commercial transport to leave ahead of a crisis, but that’s not always possible – and certainly not in the event of a surprise assault. “Once the shooting starts it’s very, very difficult,” Cancian said. He pointed to the challenge of maintaining safe corridors for evacuations and humanitarian aid in Ukraine as an example.
In Taiwan, the main airports are on the island’s China-facing west coast and might well be under attack in the event of an invasion. Chartered vessels might be sent in place of commercial planes, but again, war would render that option difficult if not impossible.
“Imagine a D-Day invasion and then a third country – Switzerland or something like that – wants to send a cruise ship through the U.S. fleet to Normandy to pick up its citizens,” Cancian said.
In some of the most harrowing evacuations in U.S. history – Saigon in 1975, or Kabul in 2021 – the U.S. military was enlisted to help as a last resort. In Taiwan, the current U.S. presence is limited to some 200 troops – up from just 30 last year – and even that presence is a source of tension with China.
Planning for the worst
Under U.S. policy, embassies around the world are charged with formulating emergency plans for embassy staff and American citizens while more detailed operational planning for evacuations is undertaken in conjunction with the Department of Defense.
John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA and practitioner in residence at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies, said that a basic but critical step for evacuation planning in Taiwan is identifying and locating Americans citizens on the island.
“One thing they might do, I would do, is I would be finding a way to tell Americans there to register in this database,” McLaughlin told The Messenger, referring to the State Department’s registry for American citizens living abroad.
Recently, the American Institute of Taiwan, which handles diplomatic work in the absence of an official U.S. embassy, appears to have been doing just that – without referencing the geopolitical situation. In February, it posted a message on its website after the earthquakes in Turkey with the headline “Preparing Now for Disasters,” reminding citizens that Taiwan is in a “region prone to disasters” and encouraging them to enroll in the registry and have “go-bags” and personal documents ready.
State Department and Defense Department planners are also responsible for identifying possible meeting points, evacuation routes and modes of transit for a range of contingencies.
“From a contingency point of view,” McLaughlin said, “you need to anticipate how many aircraft you’re going to need, what rate they’re going to have to be prepared to go in and out, and who’s in charge of that. And then there’s internal transportation, how to get people to the airports and get out.”
Other governments have already drawn up evacuation plans for Taiwan or are in the process of doing so –- including Indonesia, which has roughly 300,000 citizens in Taiwan, the largest foreign population on the island, made up mostly of migrant workers. Officials from the Philippines, which has about 150,000 citizens in Taiwan, have also said they have contingency plans in place. And last year, Japan and Taiwan began talks on an evacuation plan for Japanese citizens.
Evacuating Americans – a fraught history
U.S. policy states that the government may assist with an evacuation of American citizens under the right conditions, but it doesn’t guarantee such support. The Biden administration has come under fire for not providing enough help to Americans – most recently in Sudan, where heavy fighting erupted in April. The U.S. initially said it would not conduct an evacuation because few people had requested one; later, the government reversed its position and arranged several convoys out of Khartoum.
In the case of Afghanistan, hundreds of Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S. were left behind in the frenetic and dangerous last days of the evacuation from Kabul. That experience likely weighs heavily on the minds of U.S. officials working on plans for Taiwan, Cancian said.
“The tension is that the U.S. government wouldn’t want to pull personnel out too soon because that would signal lack of confidence,” he said. “But they wouldn’t want to wait too late because then they wouldn’t be able to get everyone out.”