Washington's notification of a second weapons sale to Taiwan in as many years is helping arm the client without, so far, enraging its military rival, China, or exacerbating already strained Sino-U.S. ties.
The Pentagon notified Congress Monday of a $330 million arms package, including parts for American-made aircraft such as F-16s and F-5s. The package omits new fighter jets, such as F-35s, or technology for submarines despite Taiwan’s requests over the years. But the deal has drawn just a routine protest from China rather than the outrage expected from bigger sales.
China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and insists the two sides eventually unify, by force if needed. Taiwanese prefer their autonomy of some 70 years. To resist China, Taiwan has fostered a military ranked by online database GlobalFirePower.com as the world’s 24th strongest. Sino-U.S. ties are already strained by a growing trade dispute.
"Some might see spare parts as a kind of rejection, because what Taiwan really wants from the U.S. is many other larger items," said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York. "But as I see it, this sale's just another step in President Trump's evolving support for Taiwan over the last 15 months or so."
Gains for Taiwan
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense thanked Washington in a statement Tuesday, adding that the latest arms package would help it keep peace with China. "The arms sale indicates strong concern by the U.S. side toward our security," the statement said.
Local defense ministry contractors have stepped up development of aircraft and missiles, but Taipei still relies on U.S. weaponry for its more advanced systems. China runs the world’s third strongest armed forces, including missiles that Taipei officials believed are aimed at Taiwan, and this year it announced an 8.1 percent defense budget increase.
The type and value of arms in the sale announced this week probably fall short of a laurel for Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, whose party is campaigning now ahead of mid-term local elections, said Liu Yih-jiun, professor of public affairs at Fo Guang University in Taiwan.
But a longer trend of improved relations with the U.S. government – from a $1.42 billion U.S. arms package announced last year to Tsai’s two high-profile stopovers in U.S. territory last month – has raised hopes in Taiwan as China squelches the island’s diplomacy with other countries.
In China, a military spokesperson said the armed forces were “strongly dissatisfied with and resolutely opposed to planned U.S. arms sales to Taiwan,” Beijing’s official Xinhua News Agency said Tuesday. The military formally protested to Washington, Xinhua said.
"Taiwan is a part of China and the one-China principle is the political foundation of China-U.S. relationship," the spokesperson was quoted saying.
But experts call this type of reaction pro forma, short of retaliating against either the U.S. government or Taiwan. That’s partly because the sale excludes powerful weapons systems, Liu said.
"As long as they don’t sell Taiwan some kinds of F-35s and some kinds of most advanced equipment, then that could be a kind of (Sino-U.S. understanding)," he said. “They would register as some kind of goodwill on the part of the United States.”
When the U.S. government announced a $6.4 billion sale in 2010, Beijing called off scheduled Sino-U.S. military visits and threatened sanctions against American defense contractors doing business in China. After Beijing found out about last year’s sale, China said it was “outraged,” according to media reports at the time.
“If we (the United States) do end up selling Taiwan aircraft and or subs, I'd expect Beijing to pretty much lose it,” King said.
Trump’s government may not want to anger China either, some scholars believe. The U.S. government has stepped up tariffs against China this year to cover some $250 billion worth of imports as Trump calls Beijing an unfair trader.
But Sino-U.S. trade talks are on hold, with Trump saying last month his government would focus first on North American trade issues. China may be eyeing November mid-term elections in the United States as a bellwether for the popularity of Trump and his trade policies, Liu said.
Taiwan should still brace for a longer-term Chinese reaction to the arms sale, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan. He said the Chinese government will make it easy for Taiwanese to work, study and invest but could take action against it politically at the same time.
"China will continue to consolidate its two-handed approach," Yang said. "On one hand, attract Taiwanese to engage in China, on the other hand holding a big stick and the stick is getting bigger and bigger."
China has flown military aircraft near the island about a dozen times and persuaded five diplomatic allies to switch allegiance since Tsai took office in 2016. Tsai upsets Beijing because she disputes its formal dialogue condition that both sides belong to a single China.