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International relations

US sale of air-to-ground missiles to Taiwan sends China a signal

Arms boost island's capability to counter several attack scenarios, analysts say

The ROC Air Force dispatches four F-16 fighter jets. Taiwan could load SLAM-ER air-to-surface missiles onto F-16s should their sale be approved by U.S. Congress. (Photo courtesy of Office of the President, Taiwan). 

NEW YORK -- The White House's approval last week of advanced arms sales to Taiwan is a sign that the U.S. is putting muscle behind its vocal support for the island's defense against Chinese aggression.

The sales include SLAM-ER air-to-ground missiles, drones and a coastal defense missile system. According to analysts, the equipment will immediately boost Taiwan's capability to counter several Chinese attack scenarios. Reuters cited an unidentified official saying the sales are valued at around $5 billion.

If Congress approves the deal -- a near-formality given bipartisan support for Taiwan's defense -- the U.S. will have sold around $17.5 billion in weapons to Taiwan during President Donald Trump's four years in office.

Beijing consistently opposes U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist Party considers part of its territory despite never having ruled it. But the particular weapons being sold make up a diverse, offense-ready package that experts say could indicate a shift in U.S. military strategy, and could provoke China even more than usual.

White House officials have internally discussed ending Washington's policy of "strategic ambiguity," according to the Financial Times. The U.S. currently refuses to publicly divulge whether it would provide military support to Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.

The arms sales, however, send their own message. The Boeing-made long-range SLAM-ER air-to-ground missiles could be used in a counterstrike directed at Chinese mainland targets, or, theoretically, even in a first strike.

"It's not a defensive weapon," said Dennis Weng, an assistant professor of political science at Sam Houston State University who has researched Taiwan's military capability. "The U.S. is trying to send a stronger signal."

President Tsai Ing-wen, center, watches the annual Han Kuang military exercise in Taiwan on July 17.  The drills are aimed at improving combat readiness in the event of an attack from China.   © AP

Washington has a standing commitment to supply weapons to Taipei as part of the Taiwan Relations Act, which was ratified after the U.S. formally broke diplomatic ties with the island in 1979.

Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, warned against interpreting the latest arms sales as a sign of a significant shift in U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

"At different times, the U.S. plays up or down certain components" of existing policies governing relations with Taiwan, she said. "If there's going to be an attack on Taiwan by China, the chance of the U.S. doing nothing and not lifting a finger is going to be minimal."

Sun described the weapons included in the five approved sales as "precisely what Taiwan would need in an asymmetric counterattack strategy to China."

Military officials and experts in both the U.S. and Taiwan have long called for Taipei to develop such capabilities to withstand Chinese aggression. U.S. national security adviser Robert O'Brien said earlier this month that Taiwan should become like a military "porcupine," adding that "lions generally don't like to eat porcupines."

"Taiwan right now should consider [its] limited budget and the threats" posed by the People's Liberation Army and prioritize precision ammunition such as the weaponry included in the latest arms sales, said Su Tzu-yun, an analyst at the government-funded Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei.

The SLAM-ER missiles and Boeing-made land-based Harpoon anti-ship missiles could enable Taiwan to gain "limited sea dominance and air superiority" in a conflict, while the General Atomics-made MQ9 drones would "serve battlefield awareness" if the PLA destroys Taiwan's radars in a first strike, Su said.

In the past, experts have criticized the necessity of some weaponry included in U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

Taiwan last year agreed to purchase 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks from the U.S. in a transaction that raised eyebrows among analysts skeptical of their utility in a conflict with China.

That sale benefited a tank manufacturing plant in the key swing state of Ohio that the U.S. Army had considered closing. Trump visited the plant in March 2019 and told workers: "Well, you better love me. I kept this place open."

The weapons Taiwan buys from the United States can be dictated by American politics just as they are by Taiwan's military needs, said Weng, who also questioned the Abrams tank sale. He added, however, that "any arms sale ... will be effective to Taiwan."

Chinese warplanes during the past two months have more frequently breached Taiwan's air defense identification zone over the Taiwan Strait, leading to debates within Taiwan over its military preparedness.

Taiwan in 2011 said it would phase out mandatory military conscription in favor of an all-volunteer force, but men of age are still required to serve at least four months. This obligation, however, is regularly derided in Taiwan as doing little to boost the military's combat readiness.

On Oct. 10, days before the arms sales were reported, Tsai gave a speech in which she declined to strike an aggressive tone and instead reiterated her administration's willingness to negotiate with authorities in Beijing. The speech marked Taiwan's national day.

"That's a very calculated balancing act by Taiwan" and a "significant indicator that Taiwan doesn't want this to get out of hand," Sun said. "Neither side is intending to fight a war at this moment."

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