updated 4/19/2008 3:29:30 PM ET 2008-04-19T19:29:30

The United States may post Marines at its unofficial embassy in Taiwan — a small but symbolically significant change in its delicate political relationship with the self-ruled island.

A State Department advertisement in the English-language Taipei Times newspaper called for contractors to construct quarters for Marine security guards at a new U.S. compound in the capital, Taipei.

Since the U.S. switched its recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, there have been no Marine guards at its Taipei facility — the American Institute in Taiwan — in keeping with its deliberately low political profile.

It is customary for the U.S. to put Marine guards in its embassies and consulates worldwide.

Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949. China continues to claim the island as its territory, and threatens to attack Taiwan if it seeks to make the break permanent.

Placing the guards at AIT — the de facto American Embassy on the island would constitute another in a series of gradual steps in upgrading its status.

Staffers were originally required to sever their relations with the State Department and other U.S. government agencies before going to work at the facility. That requirement has been dropped.

In 2005 the U.S. began placing military attaches there, though to keep their profile low they were not allowed to wear uniforms.

An AIT spokesman had no immediate comment on the possible dispatch of the Marines to Taipei.

Political scientist Alexander Huang of Taipei's Tamkang University said if it goes through, sending the Marines would signify an improvement in bilateral relations.

"With the Marine guards in place, the U.S. would be treating its Taipei facility just like its other embassies and consulates despite the lack of diplomatic relations," Huang said.

China is likely to protest the move, Huang said, as "Beijing is very sensitive to diplomatic issues."

The new U.S. compound in Taipei is a part of a large-scale State Department overseas construction program. The facility, to be built in the city's Neihu district, will replace an aging downtown compound.

Despite its lack of diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Washington maintains a robust defense relationship with the island, selling it billions of dollars of arms annually, often to the ire of Beijing.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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