After US President Joe Biden was elected in November last year, there was nervousness in Taipei over whether his administration would seek to reverse some of his predecessor’s polices on Taiwan and China. One of the key areas of concern was whether US sales of defensive weaponry to Taiwan would be scaled back.
The administration of former US president Donald Trump dispensed with the ultra-cautious approach initiated by former US president Bill Clinton, and continued by former US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, approving a flurry of much-needed weapons packages to redress the rapidly changing balance of power in the Taiwan Strait, with the aim of turning Taiwan into a prickly “porcupine” capable of deterring a Chinese attack.
The good news is that fears of a return to the past practice of piecemeal weapons sales, begrudgingly approved by Washington, appears to have been unfounded.
On Thursday last week, the US Department of State approved the sale of US$750 million in weapons and equipment to Taiwan, the first such sale since Biden took office in January. The US Congress must still formally ratify the deal, but based on past experience, it should sail through the final legislative hurdle.
The main element of the deal is the sale of 40 155mm Paladin M109A6 self-propelled howitzers, together with 20 field artillery ammunition support vehicles, five M88A2 Hercules vehicles and 1,698 multi-option precision guidance upgrade kits.
The upgrade kits would convert Taiwan’s stockpile of projectiles into GPS-guided munitions, enabling the military to modernize its fleet of self-propelled howitzer artillery pieces and enhance interoperability with US forces.
Also included in the deal is the sale of other essential military gear, including M239 vehicle-mounted smoke grenade launchers, nighttime viewing systems for armored vehicles, GPS devices and M2 Chrysler mount .50 caliber machine guns.
Taiwanese observers have said that the timing and size of the deal, six months into Biden’s term, is largely in line with deals made under Trump, whose administration announced 11 separate arms sales to Taiwan during his four years in office.
Additionally, defense watchers have said that the Biden administration appears to be continuing the Trump administration’s practice of assessing purchase requests on a case-by-case basis, according to need, rather than returning to the staggered sale of equipment packages before 2017.
Commenting on the deal, Lee Che-chuan (李哲全), a researcher at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, said that Biden inherited the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy and would continue to enhance the defensive capabilities of allied nations in the region.
Lee added that he expects US arms sales to continue plugging the gaps in Taiwan’s defenses.
While US arms sales form a vital component of Taiwan’s defense strategy, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) previously said that Taiwan cannot, and must not, rely on foreign assistance alone, as the nation must demonstrate that it is willing and capable of defending itself and cannot expect the US, or any other nation, to sail to its rescue. This means spending more on defense and continuing to invest heavily in indigenous capabilities relating to advanced missile defense, missile attack boats and submarines.
The Ministry of National Defense must also ensure that it strikes the right balance between upgrading legacy platforms — such as F-16V fighters and 108 M1A2X Abrams battle tanks — and developing asymmetric warfare capabilities that would allow Taiwan to redress the yawning disparity between the sizes of its own and China’s military forces, and build a credible deterrence.
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