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Taiwan’s military shopping list comes amid a war of words between US, China

M1 Abrams tanks are moved into place to be loaded into a C-5M Super Galaxy Nov. 15, 2011, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)
June 09, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The United States is planning to sell more than U.S.$2 billion worth of weapons and military hardware to Taiwan, as Beijing steps up pressure on the democratic island through international isolation and demands for “unification,” according to media reports and Taiwan’s defense ministry.

An informal notification of the proposed sale has been sent to the U.S. Congress, Reuters quoted four sources close to the sale as saying.

Items on the shopping list include 108 General Dynamics Corp M1A2 Abrams tanks worth around U.S.$2 billion as well as anti-tank and anti-aircraft munitions, the report said.

While Washington broke off diplomatic ties with the 1911 Republic of China on Taiwan, recognising the Beijing government instead, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) provides for continued cultural and economic ties, as well as military assistance for self-defense purposes, subject to approval from the President and Congress.

While the U.S. government doesn’t comment on potential or pending arms sales or transfers before they have been formally notified to Congress, Taiwan confirmed the proposed sale on Thursday.

A Taiwan defense ministry statement said it had put in a request for 108 M1A2 Abrams tanks, 1,240 TOW anti-armor missiles, 409 Javelin anti-tank missiles, and 250 Stinger man-portable air defense systems.

The request is proceeding “as normal,” the statement said.

Calls for more support

The move comes after repeated calls from Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen for more support from Washington for the island’s 23 million residents, who have scant interest in being annexed by China’s ruling Chinese Communist Party.

It also follows comments from U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and Chinese defense minister Wei Fenghe at the 18th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last week.

Shanahan referred to Taiwan as a “committed partner” of the United States, reiterating Washington’s commitment to the TRA and to supporting the decisions made by the island’s own people.

Wei later warned in his speech that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “won’t hesitate to fight, at all costs, [Taiwan’s ruling] Democratic Progressive Party government and the forces of external interference.”

“If the PLA can’t bring about the unification of the motherland, what is it for?” he asked.

Transiting the Strait

In another sign of concern in Washington over a potential threat to Taiwan, two U.S. warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait, which divides the island from China, on Wednesday.

Josephe Keiley, spokesman for the U.S. 7th Fleet, said the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Preble and the oiler USNS Walter S. Diehl conducted “a routine Taiwan Strait transit on Tuesday-Wednesday in accordance with international law.”

“The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” Keiley said.

Taiwan’s navy held a major live-fire exercise off the island’s east coast on the same day, in an area increasingly traversed by Chinese ships and planes.

“China is getting stronger and stronger,” political and international relations scholar Li Jing told RFA. “Some of its actions … make Taiwan feel unsafe, so Taiwan is hoping that the United States can help … through the sale of arms.”

“[The warships are] a way of saying that [China] shouldn’t act rashly.”

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the Chinese Communist Party has “serious concerns” about the reported arms sale.

“We urge the U.S. side to fully recognize the high degree of sensitivity and serious and dangerous nature of the issue of arms sales to Taiwan,” Geng said.

He called on Washington to to “cease arms sales and military ties with Taiwan … and avoid serious damage to China-U.S. relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

‘An inland sea’

According to Lee Cheng-hsiu, a senior assistant research fellow in the national security division of Taiwan’s National Policy Foundation, there are moves afoot in China to declare the Taiwan Strait an “inland sea,” as opposed to its current designation of international waters.

“They are planning to designate the whole of the Taiwan Strait an inland sea, but such legislation won’t be acceptable to other countries, because it conflicts with international law,” Lee told RFA.

“This legislation proposed by China totally disregards the international community and the requirements of international treaties,” he said.

“To put it bluntly, it’s a bit dumb, because China easily has enough power to control the whole of the Taiwan Strait, balancing or even replacing the U.S.”

A spokesman who answered the phone at Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the executive body in charge of relations with China, declined to comment on the proposed new law.

“This is not a final decision,” the spokesman said. “I have no response for you at this time.”

The U.S. has been dispatching warships to sail through the Taiwan Strait every month, and Wednesday’s passage was the fifth this year.

Demands for unification

In a Jan. 2 speech titled “Letter to our Taiwan compatriots,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said that Taiwan must be “unified” with China, and refused to rule out the use of military force to annex the island.

But Tsai has repeatedly said that Taiwan’s 23 million population have no wish to give up their sovereignty.

Taiwan was ruled as a Japanese colony in the 50 years prior to the end of World War II, but was handed back to the 1911 Republic of China under the Kuomintang (KMT) government as part of Tokyo’s post-war reparation deal.

It has never been controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor formed part of the People’s Republic of China.

The island began a transition to democracy following the death of Chiang Kai-shek’s son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.

Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Qi Leyi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.