The United States has approved more than a billion dollars in potential arms sales to Taiwan, a move that has already drawn unsurprising criticism the People’s Republic of China. However, there is no clear indication when these deliveries, which the Taiwanese military sorely needs to maintain a credible deterrent, might actually occur and some fear the U.S. government might choose to use them as a bargaining chip with their counterparts in Beijing.
On June 29, 2017, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), the Pentagon’s top arms broker, announced that the U.S. State Department has cleared seven separate arms deals, totaling more than $1.3 billion, for what it referred to as the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in the United States.” This entity represents the Republic of China government on the island of Taiwan, which the U.S. government does not technically recognize, but which it reserves the right to sell weapons to under the Taiwan Relations Act, also known as Public Law 96-8.
Each individual DSCA notice said both that “this proposed sale is consistent with United States law and policy as expressed in Public Law 96-8” and that “the proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region.” The latter statement is canned language that the Pentagon office includes in almost all of its arms sales announcements. These are the first sales to Taiwan the U.S. government has approved under President Donald Trump. DSCA last announced proposed arms deliveries to Taiwan in 2015, which, at the time, were the first such deals in more than four years.
The “provision of defensive systems … increases Taiwan’s confidence and ability to maintain the status quo of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said through her official Twitter account. “We will continue to seek constructive dialogue with Beijing, and promote positive developments in cross-strait relations.”
The “defensive” weapons are all clearly focused on improving Taiwan’s parity to forces on the mainland, which have been rapidly modernizing in recent years. The single largest item is $400 million to maintain and upgrade the Taiwanese military’s Surveillance Radar Program (SRP). The integrated systems are “a key component to the recipient's Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance architecture,” according to DSCA. “[Taiwan] will use the requested updates and sustainment as a defensive deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense.”
Then there’s another $80 million to upgrade the AN/SLQ-32(V)3 Electronic Warfare Systems aboard the Taiwanese Navy’s four Kee Lung-class destroyers. These ships, laid down in 1978, had formerly served in the U.S. Navy as the Kidd-class, an advanced derivative of the Spruance-class. The 1970s vintage “slick-32” has a radar warning component to alert the crew they are being targeted, as well as a jamming capability to defend against enemy systems. It can also take in signals from friendly radars, providing a passive targeting capability itself. The DSCA notice does not explain what specific changes Taiwan wants to make to its systems.
The other five deals are for missiles and torpedoes and associated components, spare parts, and other support services. Two separate packages contain 50 AGM-88B High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM) and 56 AGM-154C Joint Stand-Off Weapons (JSOW). Both of these would be important armament options for the Taiwanese Air Force’s fleet of F-16 Viper fighter jets. In particular, the JSOW could give them a desperately needed stand-off capability against Chinese forces, including those still on the mainland. The Taiwan Strait is barely more than 100 miles wide at some points. When released from a high altitude, the AGM-154C can reach a maximum range of 70 miles. The weapon also has a two-stage penetrating warhead that can break through some hardened targets. JSOW is especially useful for going after an enemy's key air defense nodes and command and control hubs.
Another missile delivery would include 16 Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) Block IIIA surface-to-air missiles, plus additional components either as spares or potentially to upgrade older versions of the weapons that Taiwan already has in inventory. The country’s Kee Lungs are armed with SM-2s. Manufacturer Raytheon says the Block IIIA variant is capable of intercepting subsonic and supersonic aircraft and cruise missiles at high and low altitudes. However, this type of standard missile does not have any anti-ballistic missile capability however, nor would its ships have the radar or other systems necessary to prosecute an intercept. Given the ranges involves, integrated air defenses on land and sea would be essential to holding off a Chinese invasion, especially given that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has the potential to simply overwhelm Taiwan’s own air arm.
Lastly there are two potential batches of torpedoes and associated upgrade parts. One possible deal has 46 Mk 48 Mod 6AT heavyweight types. The other has enough components for Taiwan to upgrade 168 older Mk 46 Mod 5 lightweight torpedoes into the more advanced Mk 54 configuration. The Mk 48s would be for the Taiwanese Navy’s pair of Dutch-built Hai Lung-class
diesel electric submarines. The “Advanced Technology” Mod 6 versions combine a modified, quieter-running version of an earlier propulsion system with a new guidance and control unit. The United States has already sold these types to Brazil and Turkey for their diesel electric submarine fleets. The lightweight Mk 54s, primarily an anti-submarine weapon, would arm Taiwanese surface ships and maritime patrol aircraft. Taken together, these would be Taiwan’s first lines of defense against China’s underwater fleet, which includes dozens of boats, includes both nuclear-powered and advanced diesel-electric types.
These weapons would be significant and important additions to Taiwan’s inventory given both the aging state of much of its own equipment and military modernization on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. In recent years, the various branches of the People’s Liberation Army have been working hard to obtain aircraft carriers, advanced surface warships and submarines, stealth
A day before the Pentagon announced the potential arms packages for the Taiwanese military, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) launched its first Type 055 destroyer, which will be the most advanced surface combatant the country has ever put into service. All of this seems geared to help the country expand its military prowess well beyond its borders into contested areas such as the South China Sea and the East Sea, which would only serve to further isolate Taiwanese authorities from their allies in an actual conflict.
By comparison Taiwan’s military often appears accident prone and is in desperate need of upgrades across the board. But the island’s complicated diplomatic position has often stalled U.S. arms deals in spite of the Taiwan Relations Act and broad support for the policy in Congress.
Notably, after years of attempting to convince various U.S. presidential administrations to let it buy new, advanced F-16 fighter jets, Taiwanese officials finally compromised and agreed to instead purchase an upgrade package for its older F-16A/B Vipers. Similarly, there has been much talk of, but little movement on adding new submarines to the fleet, which still operates two World War II-era ex-Tench-class boats in a training capacity. On that front, in addition to DSCA’s announcements, the Senate Armed Services Committee did include a provision to aid Taiwan in developing new subs in its proposed annual defense spending bill. The most immediate problem has historically been that no American shipyard currently makes diesel electric submarines and the United States isn’t interested in selling Taiwan nuclear-powered submarines.
The proposed sales DSCA announced in June 2017 had already been in the works under President Barack Obama, but his administration deferred to incoming President Donald Trump and his team. The Trump Administration has since accused Obama of trying to kill the plan entirely, but there are similar concerns that the deal might still be in danger.
Then president-elect Trump did call President Tsai after her own election win in January 2017, widely seen a breach of protocol both for an incoming president and with regards to U.S. government relations with Beijing. Tsai’s Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party has advocated in the past for policies seen as taking Taiwan down a path of complete independence from China rather than seeking to continue claiming its authority over the mainland. The government in Beijing, which insists the island is little more than a rogue province, labeled Tsai an “independence extremist” in response to some of her past statements.
However, after meeting with Chinese premier Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida four months later, Trump appeared to adopt a conciliatory tone one the issue, backing down from any obvious support for Taiwan in any status. “I think he's [Xi] doing an amazing job as a leader, and I wouldn't want to do anything that comes in the way of that,” Trump told Reuters in an interview after the meeting. “So, I would certainly want to speak to him first.”
After hearing of DSCA’s announcements, Chinese officials specifically cited the “Mar-a-Lago summit” in their objections to the planned arms sales. It is worth nothing that the China always complains about any such arrangements on principle, as it does not recognize the authority of the government on Taiwan to make such deals or otherwise engage in foreign affairs.
But with the Trump administration talking tough on North Korea and repeatedly stressing the importance of China in getting the reclusive regime to abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, there has been speculation that he might offer to scrap or slow-roll the arms deals to secure their support. Separately, the Trump administration appeared to effectively halt so-called “Freedom of Navigation” patrols, or FONOPs, near Chinese-occupied islands in the contested South China Sea for months. In May 2017, the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Dewey performed the first such mission in more than six months, sailing near Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, challenging Chinese claims.
Still, the Trump's relationship with the Chinese may be cooling again, as officials in Beijing have shown themselves unable or unwilling to control North Korean provocations. Late on June 29, 2017, his administration announced new sanctions against two Chinese citizens and two businesses in the country, the Dalian Global Unity Shipping Company and the Bank of Dandong. U.S. authorities specifically accused the financial institution of helping North Korea launder money.
In the meantime, Taiwanese officials will undoubtedly lobby their own supporters in Congress, which still has to approve the sales. Since Taiwan enjoys broad, bipartisan support among American lawmakers, it seems unlikely there will be any problems on that front. Ultimately, Trump will have to decide how to proceed and that decision could be one of the clearest indications yet of his administration’s actual stance on Taiwan.
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