The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. to sell $1.1 billion in anti-ship, air-to-air weapons to Taiwan

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen watches soldiers operate equipment during a visit to a naval station on Penghu, off Taiwan's western coast, on Aug. 30. (Taiwan Ministry of National Defense/AP)

The Biden administration Friday formally notified Congress of its intent to sell Taiwan $1.1 billion worth of defensive arms as Beijing continues its heightened military air and sea presence around the island in the wake of a high-profile visit to Taipei by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last month.

The package, which includes 60 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, 100 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and support for a surveillance radar system, is the fifth and largest arms sale to Taiwan advanced by the Biden administration. It is widely expected to clear Congress, which is considering legislation to surge the amount of security assistance provided to Taiwan over the next four years.

Such sales generally take several years to be delivered because of larger structural challenges arising out of how foreign military sales are completed. Laura Rosenberger, White House senior director for Taiwan and China, said the administration has undertaken a “substantial effort” to accelerate the process. “We’re acutely aware of the need to expedite delivery,” she said.

The package, which was first reported by Politico, is part of the administration’s broader strategy to deter Beijing’s aggression, officials said. That strategy also calls for working with allies and partners through joint exercises in the region and building Taipei’s economic resilience so it can withstand increased pressure from China, they said. The United States will soon launch trade talks with Taiwan.

“The biggest threats we see that Taiwan will face are going to come from the sea and from the air,” Rosenberger said. “So it is really critical that they are able to use the Harpoons in support of the coastal defense and the Sidewinders in support of their air defense.”

Taiwan to boost defense spending to deter China’s military threat

Rosenberger stressed, however, that the administration sees the threat from China against Taiwan as long-term and so Washington’s response needs to be both sustained and comprehensive. Last month, for instance, the United States conducted a joint air exercise with Japan near Okinawa, and last week it sent two U.S. warships through the Taiwan Strait — the first such transit since Pelosi’s visit.

“We will not be reflexive or knee-jerk,” White House Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell told reporters last month. “We will be patient and effective, will continue to fly sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

Taiwan’s status is the most fraught issue in the U.S.-China relationship. Washington, under its one-China policy, recognizes Beijing as the sole legal government of China. But it has never endorsed Beijing’s position that Taiwan, a self-governed island, is part of China. Nonetheless, under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is committed to providing Taipei “defense articles and defense services” necessary to enable it to defend itself.

For months and even years before Pelosi’s visit, Beijing was stepping up aggressive actions in the region. President Xi Jinping saw a visit by Pelosi, who was the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the island since then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997, as highly provocative and effectively an effort to further change relations between Washington and Taipei.

Xi Jinping asked Biden to prevent Pelosi from visiting Taiwan

But the Biden administration said it is China that is seeking to upend the status quo. “What we see is a real effort by Beijing to increase its coercive pressure campaign against Taiwan,” Rosenberger said. “We believe that Beijing is trying to change the status quo and its efforts are jeopardizing peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

The backlogs in arms sales are getting worse because the demand is growing as threats around the world multiply, experts said. “It usually takes four or five years for weapons to be delivered and deployed — that is a normal timeline for the foreign military sales process,” said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, which tracks arms sales closely.

“The ability of the primary defense contractors to ramp up production quickly simply is not there,” he said. “That’s for fighter jets, ships, missiles. When we need more HIMARS [multiple-rocket launchers] for Ukraine, there just isn’t the capacity in the production lines.”

According to Hammond-Chambers, none of the weapons in the previous packages approved by the Biden administration have been delivered. In fact, very little of the hardware approved under the Trump administration for Taiwan has been delivered, he said.

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is driving up demand in Eastern Europe for U.S. weapons. The threat from Iran is driving procurement from the Emirates. In Asia, China’s military buildup has heightened demand for U.S. weapons from the Indians, Australians and Japanese, he said.

“Those are all real threats to our country and friends and partners,” he said. “When you get right down to prioritizing who gets what when, is Iran the bigger threat? Is Russia? Is China? Sequencing is really tricky.”

The anti-ship and air-to-air missiles that Washington is selling Taipei are what the administration calls “asymmetric” in that they are intended to neutralize larger and more expensive assets such as warships or fighter jets. But some analysts say the ground-launched Harpoons are more likely to survive Chinese targeting than those launched from F-16s, as called for in this package. Nonetheless, they are a step in the right direction, other analysts say.

“No single sale is going to solve Taiwan’s problems, but a sustained level of investment in anti-ship and anti-air capabilities that builds credible stockpiles is a positive trend,” said Eric Sayers, a former adviser to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and now a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Furnishing arms to Taipei in advance of a conflict is crucial because once fighting breaks out, it will be near impossible to resupply Taiwan via land, sea or sea, analysts said. “NATO has been able to supply weapons to Ukraine relatively easily” through its land border with Poland, noted Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund. “If a conflict between Taiwan and China breaks out, a PLA [People’s Liberation Army] blockade would prevent the United States from supplying weapons to Taiwan so they need to store a large inventory of munitions.”