US plans to sell more drones, missiles to Taiwan: Report

Administration proposes sale of more sophisticated weaponry to the self-ruled island as China ratchets up pressure.

An MQ-9 Reaper drone on the ground in Kandahar, Afghanistan [File: Omar Sobhani/Reuters]

The White House is moving forward with more sales of sophisticated military equipment to Taiwan as Beijing intensifies pressure on the democratic island it claims as its own.

Officials told Congress on Tuesday that the Trump administration was planning to sell MQ-9 drones and a coastal defensive missile system to Taipei, sources familiar with the situation told Reuters. The possible sales follow three other notifications on Monday that drew a rebuke from China.

One of the eight sources said that in total the sales were valued at approximately $5bn. Very often figures from the United States’s foreign military sales include costs for training, spares and fees making the values difficult to pinpoint.

Reuters reported in September that as many as seven major weapons systems were making their way through the US export process as the Trump administration ramps up pressure on China in the closing weeks of campaigning for the presidential election on November 3.

The pre-notification to Congress for the General Atomics-made MQ-9 drones is the first since President Donald Trump’s administration moved ahead with its plan to sell more drones to more countries by reinterpreting an international arms control agreement called the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

Tuesday’s other congressional pre-notification was for land-based Harpoon anti-ship missiles, made by Boeing, to serve as coastal defence cruise missiles. One of the sources said the approximately 100 cruise missiles that were notified to Capitol Hill would have a cost of about $2bn.

Representatives for the US State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A Taiwan government source acknowledged that “Taiwan has five weapon systems that are moving through the process.”

The US Senate Foreign Relations and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committees have the right to review, and block, weapons sales under an informal review process before the State Department sends its formal notification to the legislative branch.

An aircrew flying an MQ-9 Reaper drone aircraft over a fire in northern California [File: US Air National Guard/Senior Airman Crystal Housman/Handout via Reuters]

Leaders of the committees were notified that the planned weapons sales had been approved by the US State Department which oversees foreign military sales, said the sources, who are familiar with the situation but declined to be identified.

Reuters reported on Monday that informal notifications had already been sent to Congress for a truck-based rocket launcher known as a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), long-range air-to-ground missiles called SLAM-ER, and external sensor pods for F-16 jets that allow the real-time transmission of imagery and data from the aircraft back to ground stations.

Rising pressure

When asked about Tuesday’s tranche of congressional notifications, the Chinese embassy in Washington referred to an overnight statement from Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.

Zhao said US arms sales to Taiwan severely damaged China’s sovereignty and security interests. He urged Washington to clearly recognise the harm they caused and immediately cancel them, adding, “China will make a legitimate and necessary response according to how the situation develops.”

China considers self-ruled Taiwan part of its territory and has not ruled out the use of force to take control of the island. The US considers Taiwan an important democratic outpost and is required by law to provide it with the means to defend itself.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said on Saturday that the government would continue to modernise the island’s defence capabilities and enhance its capacity for asymmetric warfare to “deal with military expansion and provocation from the other side of the Taiwan Strait”. Asymmetric warfare is designed to make any Chinese attack difficult and costly, for example, with smart mines and portable missiles.

People familiar with the talks with Taiwan have said that transfer of technology to Taipei for domestic production of various weapons capabilities has been under discussion.

Washington is eager for Taiwan to bolster its defensive capabilities in the face of increasingly aggressive Chinese moves towards the island.

Beijing has been ratcheting up pressure on the island ever since Tsai was first elected in 2016, but has stepped up its activities since she was re-elected in a landslide in January.

So far in 2020, Taiwan’s military has launched aircraft to intercept Chinese planes more than twice as often as the whole of last year, the island’s defence ministry said last week.

In a report to parliament, Taiwan’s defence ministry said the air force had scrambled 4,132 times so far this year, up 129 percent compared with all of 2019.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters