US pushes large arms sale to Taiwan, including jet missiles that can hit China

The missiles can be used with F-16 fighter jets that the United States has sold Taiwan. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The Trump administration is pushing the sale of seven large packages of weapons to Taiwan, including long-range missiles that would allow Taiwanese jets to hit distant Chinese targets in the event of a conflict, say officials familiar with the proposals.

If approved by Congress, the packages, valued in the billions, would be one of the largest weapons transfers in recent years to Taiwan. The administration plans to informally notify lawmakers of the sales within weeks.

By law, the US government is required to provide weapons of a defensive nature to Taiwan, a self-governing, democratic island.

China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory, has escalated its military activity near the island after Taiwan's president Tsai Ing-wen won reelection in January by beating a candidate viewed as friendlier to Beijing.

The proposed sales come as US President Donald Trump and his campaign strategists try to paint him as tough on China in the run-up to the election in November.

They are eager to divert the conversation among American voters away from Mr Trump's vast failures on the coronavirus pandemic and the economy, and to paper over his constant praise for Mr Xi Jinping, China's leader, and his earlier encouragement or tolerance of some of Mr Xi's most controversial policies, including in the regions of Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Some administration officials see bolstering Taiwan as an important part of creating a broader military counterweight to China in Asia. Taiwan has strong bipartisan support in Congress, so administration officials expect lawmakers to approve the arms sales.

Relations between the United States and China have plummeted to their lowest point in decades, as the two nations openly challenge each other on a wide range of issues, including trade, technology, diplomatic relations and military dominance of Asia.

The most sensitive weapon system of the proposed packages to Taiwan is an air-to-ground missile, the AGM-84H/K SLAM-ER, made by Boeing.

Because of its range, it can be fired by jets flying beyond the reach of China's air defence system. The missiles could hit targets on the Chinese mainland or at sea, including warships trying to cross the Taiwan Strait.

The proposed sale of the missile, which is likely to cause concern among Chinese military officials, has not been previously reported.

The missiles can be used with F-16 fighter jets that the United States has sold Taiwan. The Trump administration announced last year that it was selling to Taiwan 66 such jets at US$8 billion (S$10.86 billion), one of the single largest arms packages to the island in many years.

Officials said the current proposed sales include surveillance drones that are an unarmed version of the Reaper model made by General Atomics; a truck-based rocket artillery system made by Lockheed Martin; land-based Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Boeing; and sea mines. Reuters reported aspects of the packages Wednesday.

"The US is increasingly concerned that deterrence is weakening as Chinese military capabilities grow," said Ms Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. "The items in this package will help increase Taiwan's ability to prevent a Chinese invasion - essentially to hold out longer."

But, she said: "Weapons procurements are only one part of that equation. The US is also urging Taiwan to rebuild its reserves and conduct more real-world training."

China traditionally denounces arms sales to Taiwan, and it could send a warning by increasing the intensity of exercises the People's Liberation Army conducts in the area. Last month, it fired a barrage of medium-range missiles into the South China Sea during a series of military exercises, and on Wednesday, it sent two anti-submarine aircraft into Taiwan's air defense identification zone.

China might also announce sanctions against the US companies involved in the proposed sales. In July, it said it would penalise Lockheed Martin after the Trump administration had announced it was approving a US$620 million arms package to Taiwan that involved upgrades by the company to surface-to-air missiles. But Lockheed Martin barely does any business with China and has supplied weapons and defence equipment to Taiwan for many years.

If China imposed sanctions on Boeing, however, that could deal a blow to the company, which sells commercial jets to the country.

Professor Evan Medeiros from Georgetown University who was a senior Asia director on the National Security Council in the Obama administration, said China might impose sanctions on a few companies, "but strategically they are focused on preserving stability in US-China relations right now."

Prof Medeiros and other US officials have pressed Taiwanese officials over the past decade to buy weapons that would enhance deterrence and increase the island military's abilities to hold off Chinese forces in a meaningful way.

In June 2019, the Trump administration, at the request of Taiwanese officials, proposed a US$2 billion package of arms that included 108 M1A2 Abrams tanks. Those sales have been widely criticised by U.S. experts on the Chinese military, who say the tanks would not be of great use in the event of an invasion by the People's Liberation Army.

With the current proposed sales, though, "Taiwan is finally buying what it really needs to implement its asymmetric defense strategy," Prof Medeiros said. "It's a bit tardy to this garden party, but Taiwan's leaders are finally committing serious resources."

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