As China gets more aggressive, the US wants to sell Taiwan new weapons to fend off Beijing

Army HIMARS High Mobility Artillery Rocket System
A High Mobility Artillery Rocket System fires a rocket during a test at Yakima Training Center in Washington state, April 28, 2020.
  • The White House notified Congress this week that it plans to sell new weapons to Taiwan, including a mobile rocket-artillery system and a long-range precision missile.
  • Taiwan has a long-standing relationship as a US arms buyer, but the latest deals come amid rising tensions with China, and the weapons it includes would give Taipei more ways to blunt an attack by Beijing.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The White House has told Congress it plans to sell more advanced weapons to Taiwan, another sign of US support amid rising tensions with China, which sees Taiwan as a breakaway province.

The Trump administration notified Congress on Monday that it intends to sell the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS; the Standoff Land Attack Missile-Expanded Response, or SLAM-ER; and external sensor pods for F-16 fighters. On Tuesday, the White House said it planned to sell MQ-9 drones and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

Reuters first reported both informal notifications, which allow lawmakers to review sales before the State Department sends a formal notification. Congress typically backs such sales to Taiwan; an aide told CNN that Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee were inclined to do so now.

It would be the latest in a series of moves underscoring US support for Taipei, including high-level visits and measures in Congress.

Navy P-3 Orion SLAM-ER missile
Navy aircrew downloads the SLAM-ER (Captive Air Training Missile) from a P-3 at Misawa Air Base in Japan, April 21, 2012.

Reuters and others reported in September that the US was working on a multibillion-dollar sale of advanced weaponry to make Taiwan like a "porcupine" to deter attack.

US arms sales to Taiwan have grown under Trump, and these weapons would give Taipei longer reach.

HIMARS is a mobile rocket-artillery system with a range of 190 miles. The SLAM-ER is a long-range precision missile that can be fired from an aircraft at targets over 150 miles away.

The SLAM-ER "would represent a step-up from past arms sales to Taiwan, which then had a 'defensive' emphasis," said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, noting that the deal "might have been inevitable" given the widening military gap between China and Taiwan.

The sale would be consistent with past arms deals "in terms of their mission and type," said Ian Easton, senior director at the Project 2049 Institute, a nonprofit research group focused on promoting US security interests in the region.

But because of their extended ranges, "they are more survivable than legacy systems and better able to complicate the Chinese Communist Party's plans to invade Taiwan," Easton said.

What Taiwan needs

Taiwan air force F-16 fighter jet
Taiwan air force ground crew run to a US-made F-16V fighter for an emergency takeoff during an exercise in southern Taiwan, January 15, 2020.

China has taken a more aggressive approach in dealing with many of its neighbors, including a number of rhetorical and military moves directed at Taiwan, a self-governing democracy of 24 million which it has vowed to reabsorb.

Taiwan's defense minister said this month that Chinese aircraft have crossed their unofficial boundary in the Taiwan Strait 49 times this year, the most since 1990, straining Taiwan's military. Days later, on Taiwan's National Day, Chinese forces practiced a large-scale island assault on the coast opposite Taiwan.

Taiwan's military, armed with US weaponry, has long been one of the region's best, but its recent decline and the Chinese military's rapid expansion — its missile and amphibious forces in particular — have eroded that advantage.

Taipei is investing in both conventional weaponry, such as fighter jets and tanks, as well as anti-access/area denial weapons, such as anti-ship missiles, to blunt a range of threats.

"Taiwan has a layered defensive posture. What makes the prospect of HIMARS and SLAM-ER an important factor is that they both have ranges of nearly 200 miles, meaning that they will be able to push out Taiwan's defensive perimeter and hold more amphibious assault bases along the [Chinese] coast at risk," Easton told Insider.

Shiyu Kinmen County Taiwan China
Shiyu, or Lion Islet, one of Taiwan's offshore islands, seen in front of the Chinese city of Xiamen, April 20, 2018.

HIMARS' range and mobility would make it hard to find and destroy, and while aircraft launching SLAM-ERs would be vulnerable in a war, the missiles' range would "complicate things for Beijing's naval plans," Easton added.

Trump has increased engagement with Taiwan, but his handling of alliances has raised doubts about US commitment to the island. China has criticized that engagement, which it sees as tilting away from longstanding diplomatic arrangements.

"The United States seriously violates the one-China principle ... by selling arms to Taiwan," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Tuesday, referring to the 40-year-old policy under which the US formally recognizes Beijing but maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan.

The rising tensions also come amid debate in the US about what security guarantees it should make to Taiwan.

R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for Political-Military Affairs, declined to confirm any proposed arms sales to Taiwan at a think-tank event this month, saying that the US is working to "meet their defense needs."

"We share a common vision for a free and open region, so this is something where we want to make sure Taiwan's defense capabilities are met," Cooper added.

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