TAIPEI - A U.S. government arms sale to Taiwan often starts with a quiet request from Taipei, which wants new weapons for its defense against the stronger China. Then the U.S. Department of Defense deliberates for months or more whether to recommend the sale to Congress. This process has no set schedule, frustrating for Taiwan, and China fumes at any approved sales.
Now a U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Asia has a proposal to end this cycle of suspense and anger over arms sales that dates back some four decades. Some analysts say the new scheme is already in motion.
Washington will "treat Taiwan as a normal security systems partner," Asia-Pacific Assistant Secretary Randall Schriver told a Heritage Foundation think tank event in June. That means arms sales could become more routine, eliminating suspense that hangs over Taiwan and China during the waits.
"Routinizing U.S. arms sales to Taiwan would mean selling arms to Taiwan when needed, when approved and ready, and not holding them to sell all at once at a time thought less likely to offend Beijing," said Sean King, vice president of Park Strategies political consultancy in New York.
"In other words, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan wouldn't be held political hostage to the constant ebbs and flows in U.S.-PRC [People's Republic of China] relations," he said.
Cycle of suspense and rage
Washington's July 8 approval of a $2.2 billion arms package was the latest one-off case that angered China. After the State Department told Congress it wanted to sell 108 American-made M1A2T Abrams tanks and 250 Stinger missiles to Taiwan, Chinese officials demanded the sale's cancellation and said it would sever ties with any companies involved.
China sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory rather than a state entitled to its own defense. It resents other countries, especially the United States as the world's top military power, for selling arms to Taiwan.
Taiwan's foreign ministry said July 9 it "welcomed" the $2.2 billion sale, which had been pending since Taiwan made requests for weapons in March. But the island government had also hoped the deal would include new F-16 fighter planes to replace today's aging fleet.
Adding to Taiwan's suspense, former U.S. President Barack Obama had paused sales announcements for as long as two years, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. President Donald Trump's administration has announced four packages since 2017.
"For a long time, the way to process the arms sales have been a political headache in different forms for many years under many different American administrations," Huang said.
Schriver probably hopes to process sales regardless of "timing" or any pressure from China to spike a sale, he said. Today's sales, he added, are granted "case by case" partly based on the extent of China's likely backlash.
New normal for Taiwan?
Schriver did not elaborate on how Washington would make Taiwan a more normal arms client, but analysts forecast more of what Trump's government has already done.
"My personal view is that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have already become routine, over the past year or two," said David An, senior research fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based policy consultancy Global Taiwan Institute.
The new way of business means approving or rejecting each Taiwan arms request on its own merit within about three months, An said. Past U.S. administrations, he said, would let requests accumulate and then approve them all together once or twice a year.
"It's already happening," said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taiwan. "Now it's the Indo-Pacific assistant secretary, he strongly supports this new approach, and I think this is going to be the direction for the future."
China will still get mad, Yang said, but there's "nothing they can do about it" if the sales are U.S. "policy." Washington will ultimately ignore Chinese pressure, he said.