US approves potential $1.1bn weapons sale to Taiwan

Potential sale of anti-ship and air-to-air missiles to Taiwan comes amid heightened tensions between US and China.

Taiwanese air force crew load an AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles onto a F-5 fighter jet at Zhi-Hang Air Base in Taitung, Taiwan in 2018 [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]
Taiwan air force crew members load an AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile on an F-5 fighter jet at an airbase in Taitung, Taiwan in 2018 [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

The United States approved the potential sale of $1.1bn in weapons to Taiwan in a move likely worsen already heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The announcement came as two Chinese fighter jets on Saturday crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which normally serves as an unofficial barrier between the two sides, Taiwan’s defence ministry said.

A total of four Chinese aircraft and five Chinese ships were operating around Taiwan, it said.

The Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency said on Friday the arms package would include 60 anti-ship missiles, 100 air-to-air missiles and contractor logistics support for a surveillance radar programme.

US news outlet Politico first reported earlier this week on the potential US weapons deal. While Congress can still disapprove the sale, it is unlikely to do so as US lawmakers from both major parties strongly support Taiwan.

A spokesperson for the US Department of State, which approved the sale, said the package was “essential for Taiwan’s security”.

“These proposed sales are routine cases to support Taiwan’s continuing efforts to modernise its armed forces and to maintain a credible defensive capability,” the spokesperson said.

The Pentagon’s announcement comes amid strained relations between the US and China, which has not ruled out the use of force to take control of Taiwan, a self-governed island that China views as part of its territory.

China called on Friday for the US to “immediately revoke” the arms sales.

Liu Pengyu, spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, said Beijing would respond.

“It sends wrong signals to ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces and severely jeopardises China-US relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” he said.

“China will resolutely take legitimate and necessary counter-measures in light of the development of the situation.”

Taiwan’s defence ministry expressed thanks to the US, adding that China’s recent “provocative” activities represented a serious threat and the arms sale would help it face China’s military pressure.

“At the same time, it also demonstrates that it will help our country strengthen its overall defence capabilities and jointly maintain the security and peace of the Taiwan Strait and the Indo-Pacific region,” the ministry said in a statement.

‘Playing with fire’

The US is bound by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, and President Joe Biden has said Washington would use force to defend the island if it is attacked.

The relationship between Washington and Beijing has deteriorated in the past few years as the US prioritised strategic competition with China in its foreign policy under former President Donald Trump, a position fully embraced by Biden.

Meanwhile, China has warned the Biden administration that it is “playing with fire” over Taiwan.

China staged unprecedented military drills in the sea and air around the island following a contentious visit last month by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Beijing had threatened “serious consequences” if Pelosi – the highest ranking US official to travel to Taiwan in 25 years – went ahead with her visit.

Ross Feingold, an Asia political risk analyst, told Al Jazeera that the US has provided weaponry to Taiwan for “many, many decades”, but the timing of the new sale had “political or public relations value” coming amid heightened tensions between Taipei and Beijing.

“To be frank this sale is relatively small”, Feingold said, speaking from Taipei, and noting that the bulk of the sale is related to the maintenance of existing radar facilities.

Feingold said that China is likely to respond, and has already started with statements.

Beijing could also, he said, launch more incursions in Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, start new military exercises, ban certain Taiwanese products from being imported to China, impose sanctions against US and Taiwanese government officials, or take action against US companies doing business in China.

“So China always has the options, of using any of those tools. It won’t stop this particular weapons sale though,” he said.

On Thursday, Taiwan’s military said that it shot down an unidentified civilian drone that entered its airspace near the outlying Kinmen islands, which sit next door to China’s Xiamen city.

While China accused Taiwan of trying to “hype up tensions” over the incident, Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang defended the military’s actions as “appropriate” after repeated warnings.

Su told reporters Taiwan had repeatedly asked China “not to encroach on our doorstep”.

“They repeatedly ignored our warnings to leave and we had no choice but to exercise self-defence and shoot,” Su said. “This is the most appropriate reaction after repeated restraint and warnings.”

The US State Department spokesperson said on Friday that Washington “will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues, consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan”.

“We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan,” the spokesperson said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies