A $108-million U.S. arms sale to Taiwan has cleared its most recent hurdle but some critics say it is not enough to help the East Asian democracy defend itself from an attack by China.
The sale was approved by the U.S. Department of Defense Friday and includes spare parts for tanks and combat vehicles as well as provisions for technical support, according to a statement by Taiwan’s presidential office.
Following Pentagon approval, the sale moves to the U.S. Congress for approval. If it is passed, it will become the fifth arms sale under the Biden administration and the fourth sale approved this year.
Taiwan Presidential Spokesperson Zhang Dunhan said Taiwan was grateful to the U.S. government for “continuing to show great importance to Taiwan’s defense needs and fulfilling its security commitments to Taiwan.”
While the United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act it is authorized to help the democracy defend itself. Much of the previous support has included arms sales and other technical assistance and training.
China’s Ministry of Defense quickly objected to the sale. A spokesperson, Senior Colonel Tan Kefei, said the sale interferes in China’s internal affairs and “gravely jeopardize China's sovereignty and security interests.”
China’s Communist Party regards Taiwan, a self-ruling democracy, as a wayward province, although the Beijing government has never directly ruled the island. It frequently objects to any interaction between Taiwan and foreign governments, particularly the United States.
The weapons sale was also met with less enthusiasm in some parts of Taiwan.
Some in Taiwan say the Biden administration is not doing enough because recent weapons sales have focused almost entirely on logistics and support as opposed to enhancing Taiwan’s combat power.
Following initial news of the $108 million sale in June, the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council said the new requirements were “undermining” Taiwan’s defense capability by limiting the kind of items sold.
“There appears to now be little to no U.S. support for substantial Taiwan force modernization efforts,” U.S.-Taiwan Business Council President Rupert Hammond-Chambers said in the statement.
While grossly outmatched by China in terms of numbers and advanced weaponry, Taiwan’s current defense strategy focuses on an “asymmetric” or “porcupine” defense that would make it an unattractive target for China to attack.
The policy is broadly supported by the United States but Kitsch Liao Yen-fan, the military and cyber affairs consultant for Double Think Lab, a policy research firm in Taiwan, said the two sides disagree about what constitutes “asymmetric warfare.”
Liao said some Taiwanese feel Washington is shaping Taiwan’s defense policy through its weapons sales.
“The undecided nature of what asymmetric nature means is blocking us from getting major acquisitions,” Liao said. “A country should be able to decide its own defense policy. Other countries could intervene and make suggestions, but they cannot dictate a country’s defense policy.”
“This is essentially what the U.S. is doing right now, and this is also a very bad precedent they are setting,” he continued. “The U.S. is using what they sell to Taiwan in order to dictate what their defense policy is.”
Wen-ti Sung, a lecturer at Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program, said there had been hope the $108 million sale would include AGM-158 JASSM air-to-surface missiles that would enhance the firepower of Taiwan’s air force.
He told VOA the new cache of spare parts and technical support may have been seen as a more politically prudent option for now as the U.S. balances its other interests.
“Washington may prefer to balance Taiwan's military needs with the broader strategic need to stabilize relations with Beijing during the Ukraine War. Thus, finding ways to boost Taiwan's existing military assets' long-term readiness and conditioning appears to be a sensible compromise for now, and that is what this round of arms sales appears to be,” Sung said.
“If there is any saving grace for Taiwan, it may be what it reflects about Washington's risk assessment: this lack of urgency in delivering offensive weaponries shows the U.S. believes a Taiwan Strait conflict in the short-term remains unlikely,” he added.
In May, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense also said it was abandoning plans to buy 12 MH-60R anti-submarine helicopters from the United States, citing expensive costs, although some Taiwanese analysts told local media they may have been ruled as outside of the scope of “asymmetric defense.”
Other weapons deliveries have been delayed by the war in Ukraine and production problems, including 250 Raytheon Technologies Stinger missiles purchased by Taiwan in 2019 and M109A6 "Paladin" self-propelled howitzers, according to Taiwanese state media.
The two weapons systems would reportedly expand Taiwan’s long and short range defense capability.