The US is Taiwan’s principal source of advanced military technology, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the US government is reluctant to share with its ally systems that have offensive potential. While such limits reflect the spirit of the US’ Taiwan Relations Act, they also undermine Taiwan’s ability to present an increasingly powerful China with a credible military deterrent.
Over the years, Taiwan’s failure to acquire certain weapons, such as the F-16C/Ds it has been requesting since 2006, or diesel-electric submarines, has often been blamed on pressure from Beijing and its so-called “red lines,” which if crossed would presumably endanger US-China military relations.
However, pressure from Beijing alone cannot account for recent decisions on arms sales. Moves by Washington to sell Taiwan the Patriot air defense missile system, for example, sparked early threats by Beijing of dire consequences to bilateral relations, but nothing happened when PAC-3 (an upgraded version of the Patriot) fire units and missiles were finally released to Taiwan.
While Chinese pressure should not be discounted altogether, something else appears to be governing Washington’s decisions on arms sales to Taiwan: ensuring that Taipei does not acquire or develop offensive weapons. Defense analysts who have closely followed, or been involved in, arms sales over the years are convinced that the F-16C/D program first ran into trouble when Taiwan embarked on a full-scale program to develop and mass-produce the Hsiung Feng-IIE (HF-2E) surface-to-surface cruise missile.
Efforts to extend the missile’s range, from about 650km at present, may also have resulted in moves by Washington to discourage Taiwan from developing the Taiwan Small Launch Vehicle, which, while intended as a satellite launch platform, could also have been spun off for military purposes, especially given the participation of the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology — Taiwan’s main military research body and maker of the HF-2E — in the program.
Recent allegations that the US Navy has instructed top US defense firms not to take part in a possible domestic submarine program for Taiwan would also fall under this category, given the offensive nature of submarines equipped with ballistic or cruise missiles. The US$5.85 billion arms package in September last year, which focused predominantly on upgrades for Taiwan’s F-16A/Bs, did include “offensive” weapons, such as a variety of joint direct attack munitions bomb guidance kits, but that inherent offensive capability is offset because no Taiwanese aircraft could bomb China and survive, given the extent of China’s air defense batteries. Another platform with offensive attributes, the AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter, is limited by the fact that the helicopters cannot cross the Taiwan Strait to attack China, making them exclusively defensive.
It is now rumored that the US$800 million long-range early warning radar (EWR) system that is being built on Leshan (樂山) in Hsinchu County could also be the victim of Washington’s reluctance to provide Taiwan with capabilities that would encourage the latter to develop offensive military technology. As I wrote in an article in the current issue of the UK-based Jane’s Defence Weekly, word in defense circles has it that US technicians would likely “software-disable” the radar system so that it cannot track satellites, a function the EWR would ordinarily be capable of.