Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

$2.2 billion Taiwan-U.S. arms deal angers China, but sale more symbolic than signal of strength

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The U.S. State Department’s approval of a possible sale to Taiwan of “big ticket” weapons at an estimated value of $2.2 billion is likely to be seen as a symbolic move that makes sense for both Taipei and Washington as they grapple with an increasingly assertive China.

The sale of the weapons requested by Taiwan, including 108 General Dynamics Corp. M1A2T Abrams tanks and 250 Stinger missiles, “will not alter the basic military balance in the region,” the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency said in a statement released Monday.

The DSCA notified U.S. Congress the same day of the impending arms sale, which it said could also include mounted machine guns, ammunition, Hercules armored vehicles for recovering inoperative tanks, heavy equipment transporters, as well as related support.

The proposed tank sale “will contribute to the modernization of the recipient’s main battle tank fleet, enhancing its ability to meet current and future regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense,” the DSCA said.

And the missiles would “support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security and defensive capability of the recipient, an important force for political stability, military balance, and economic progress in the region,” it added.

In terms of troop numbers and firepower, Taiwan would be a massive underdog in any war with China, with much of its equipment in dire need of upgrades. In May, the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency warned in a report that Taiwan’s traditional military advantages over Beijing in the event of a cross-strait conflict were eroding in the face of China’s military modernization efforts.

Its current tank force consists of around 1,000 CM 11 Brave Tiger and M60A3 tanks, technology that is increasingly obsolete. The Abrams tanks and anti-aircraft missiles can be quickly moved by soldiers in the field, significantly boosting Taiwan’s ability to destroy Chinese armor and warplanes in the event of an invasion.

U.S. lawmakers have 30 days to object to the sale, but are unlikely to do so.

The U.S. has no formal ties with self-governed and democratic Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary — but is bound by its Taiwan Relations Act to help it defend itself and is the island’s main source of arms. The Pentagon says Washington has sold Taipei more than $15 billion in weaponry since 2010.

The deal was going ahead despite Chinese criticism, but also comes amid the protracted trade war and between the U.S. and China and what Washington says is Beijing’s militarization of the disputed South China Sea.

China’s Foreign Ministry protested the move Tuesday, expressing “strong dissatisfaction and steadfast opposition” to the possible arms sale.

Additionally, Taiwan in late February also requested 66 F-16V fighter jets from the United States, and in April, Washington approved a $500 million package that included F-16 parts and training. It was not clear if the fighter sale would be approved, but experts said such a move would deal a political shock to China.

After the approval, Taiwan’s Presidential Office expressed its “heartfelt thanks” to the U.S. government for the arms sale, while President Tsai Ing-wen said on Twitter that Taipei would continue to “defend democracy.”

“Pleased that the #US government has approved another arms sale package, boosting #Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities,” she wrote. “We’ll continue to speed up investment in national defense, & partner with like-minded countries to defend democracy while promoting regional peace and stability.”

The approval came as Tsai prepares for a visit later this month to Taiwan’s Caribbean diplomatic allies, and will be bookended by a total of four nights in the United States. Taiwanese media reported that the trip could include a rare visit to New York.

Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at California-based Rand Corp. think tank, said that the sale could prove a boon for both Taipei and Washington.

“I think the sale should be viewed mostly through a symbolic lens for Taiwan,” Grossman said. “Basically, any big ticket item — even in this case one that is unnecessary, in my view — will highlight Taipei’s ability to leverage its unique bilateral relationship with Washington to bolster defense.”

As for Washington, Grossman said the deal “is a low-risk way of keeping arms sales momentum going without unnecessarily angering Beijing.”

He said Beijing would likely reason that tanks won’t appreciably change the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait, and were instead a demonstration of Washington “treading lightly” as the White House seeks a trade deal with China and continues to need Chinese aid on the North Korean nuclear issue.

The weapons sale will also console Tokyo as it grows increasingly wary of China’s growing military assertiveness, especially near the contested Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Tokyo but also claimed by Beijing, where they are known as the Diaoyus.

“Japan should take solace in the fact that U.S.-Taiwan defense ties remain active … and strong — actually the strongest since 1979,” he said. “That is a good sign for countering Chinese aggression against” Taipei and Tokyo.