The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee has called on President Obama to increase arms sales to Taiwan even if it disrupts ties with Beijing.
“While recent relations between Taiwan and China have been more encouraging, we remain concerned that China's ongoing military modernization, and the threat it poses to peace and security in the Taiwan Strait, is not being adequately addressed,” Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the chairman, stated in a letter co-signed by Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Despite an estimated $12 billion in announced arms sales to Taiwan, the two senators said “we are troubled that it has now been over four years—the longest period since the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979—since the administration has notified Congress of a new arms sale package.”
They urged the president to approve new weapons, including sales of new and more capable F-16 jet fighters that the administration in the past has opposed supplying to Taiwan’s aging air force.
The senators said U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are “a vital component” of stability in the volatile Taiwan Strait, where China has deployed up to 1,700 missiles targeting the island.
A White House spokesman had no immediate comment.
The annual report by the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission made public last week said Taiwan’s military power is weakening as China’s is growing.
“Over the past decade, the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait has shifted significantly in China’s favor; China now enjoys both a quantitative and a qualitative advantage over Taiwan and is capable of conducting a range of military campaigns against Taiwan,” the report said.
The threat from China includes more than 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles and 200 to 500 ground-launched land-attack cruise missiles “designed primarily to strike Taiwan,” the report said.
Taiwan’s few defense upgrades have included modernizing surface-to-air missiles, commissioning several new warships, and receiving the first of 60 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. Six AH-64 Apache attack helicopters were sent in 2013.
U.S. air-to-air missiles were delivered in 2006 and 2012, and 60 Harpoon anti-ship missiles were sent in 2012. Deliveries of Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile defenses began in 2014.
Other arms arrangements include four P-3 aircraft to be delivered by the end of the year. Upgrades for older F-16s are set to take place next year.
Congress has not yet been formally notified of the sale of four Perry-class guided missile frigates.
In 2001, then-president George W. Bush approved sales of diesel electric submarines, P-3 anti-submarine warfare aircraft, and four Kidd-class destroyers. The destroyers were delivered between 2005 and 2006.
Taiwan’s government has not gone through with plans to buy U.S. submarines and is considering building the vessels domestically.
Possible future U.S. arms sales, according to the Congressional Research Service, include signals intelligence aircraft, C-27 transport aircraft, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, Stryker armored vehicles, CH-53 minesweeping helicopters, Phalanx close-in weapons, Perry-class frigates, Newport-class tank landing ships, Aegis Ashore missile defenses, Sky Warrior unmanned aerial vehicles, and MH-60 Seahawk anti-submarine warfare helicopters.
Former State Department official John Tkacik said the senators may be “pushing on an open door” since the Obama administration seems to have concluded, after being pressured by China, that Taiwan could be important to the Asia pivot strategy.
“The problem now, as the senators imply, is not Washington, but with the Taipei government which has been uncomfortably pro-China,” Tkacik said.
However, that may change in January when an election could bring the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party to power.
If the DPP candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, wins, the Taipei government will likely seek a renewed strategic relationship with Washington while moving away from Beijing. “I think the Obama White House is finally willing to brave Beijing’s crabbiness and accommodate Taipei,” Tkacik said, noting that Cardin’s signature on the letter indicates tacit White House support.
Chinese nationalists fled the mainland to Taiwan at the end of the 1940s civil war and communist takeover in 1949.
The island today is a symbol of Asian democracy and one of Asia economic “tigers.”
The Taiwan Relations Act, passed by Congress after diplomatic relations were shifted from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, commits the United States to defending the island from a mainland attack.
U.S. arms sales to the island have been a major irritant in U.S.-China relations, with China periodically disrupting military ties after past arms sales.
The Pentagon has made military exchanges with China a high priority and thus has opposed arms sales to Taiwan to preserve the ties.
McCain and Cardin said arms sales should be continued “even when doing so brings short-term tensions in our relationship with China.”
“The United States should develop and implement an ongoing plan for Taiwan's military modernization, including how the administration plans to address Taiwan's legitimate requirement for additional new manned fighters and submarines and other self-defense articles and services,” they stated.
“Given some of the obstacles with the current approach, we believe that a regular and routine process for the provision of security assistance to Taiwan is essential.”
The senators said Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou should following through on a 2008 commitment to devote 3 percent of the island’s gross domestic product to defense.
“We are increasingly concerned that, absent a change in defense spending, Taiwan's military will continue to be under-resourced and unable to make the investments necessary to maintain a credible deterrent across the strait, especially as its limited defense resources are increasingly constrained by growing military personnel costs,” the senators said.
An administration official said that arms sales to Taiwan will remain limited and that plans to sell advanced F-16 C and D models are not expected.
Additionally, the administration has not pressed the Taiwan government on efforts to develop land-attack cruise missiles and other weapons that could put cities in China at risk during a conflict.
Kin W. Moy, the director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the official U.S. government representative, has made few comments about arms sale. In September Moy said Congress since 2008 has been notified of over $18 billion in military sales.
“In addition, our militaries pursue extensive exchanges that aim to support Taiwan’s ability to deter coercion and create space for Taiwan to pursue constructive dialogue across the Strait,” he said.