The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taiwan frustrated by weapons delays, key lawmaker finds in stealth visit

Rep. Mike Gallagher, chairman of the new House select committee on China, said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a ‘wake-up call’ for Taipei

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) walks to a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 7. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)
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The war in Ukraine has impressed on Taiwan’s leaders the need to acquire and stockpile more weapons — a lesson that’s become increasingly urgent in recent months as China’s provocations accelerate, said the chairman of the new House select committee on China following a stealth trip to Taipei.

“Almost every Taiwanese official I met with mentioned the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a wake-up call,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), in an interview Monday upon his return from the self-governing democracy. China claims Taipei as its own — and has vowed it will be united with the People’s Republic one day — by force if necessary.

Taiwan faces a $19 billion arms backlog, awaiting crucial weapons — such as Harpoon anti-ship missiles and F-16 fighter jets — that in many cases aren’t due to arrive for years. In the case of Harpoons, one congressional aide said, the missiles aren’t likely to begin arriving in real numbers until 2027 at the earliest.

“That was the biggest thing we heard from every major Taiwanese leader — concerns over delays,” said Gallagher, who met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, her vice president, defense minister, intelligence chief and other top security officials in a four-day trip. “That’s troubling the Taiwanese, and I think that’s unacceptable.”

Gallagher, who had never visited Taiwan before, said he came away impressed by the urgency with which the government took the threat posed by Communist Party-led China and its fast-growing military.

“Our best chance of preventing an invasion of Taiwan, and of essentially preventing World War III, is to put actual hard power on Taiwan … and, to paraphrase President Tsai, to ensure that every day, when she wakes up, we are increasing the cost of an invasion for [Chinese President] Xi Jinping,” he said.

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Gallagher, a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who deployed twice to Iraq, said he intends to use the committee to draw attention “to the urgency of arming Taiwan” robustly.

An invasion or even a blockade of Taiwan, which makes a quarter of the world’s semiconductors and more than 90 percent of the most advanced chips, could trigger immense disruptions to the global economy leading to a recession that could rival the 2008 financial crisis, some experts warn.

While Taiwanese officials do not say they believe a Chinese invasion is imminent, they are nonetheless aware of how difficult it would be to defend their island against a powerful potential adversary just across a 100-mile strait. Resupplying Taiwan with weapons in a conflict would be near impossible, experts warn, and so equipping it before the need arises is key.

“We need to be moving heaven and earth to arm Taiwan to the teeth to avoid a war,” Gallagher said. “Nobody knows if and when Xi Jinping wakes up and decides to do this but all the more reason to put in place a denial posture as quickly as possible.”

Ground-launched Harpoon missiles that are capable of hitting ships with a 500-pound warhead from more than 70 miles away are considered a critical capability for Taiwan in a conflict with China, which has the world’s largest navy. The first announcement of an intent to sell Harpoons to Taiwan came at the tail end of the Trump administration. The second came in September.

But Saudi Arabia paid for an earlier order of Harpoons and are thus ahead of Taiwan in the delivery queue. “Taiwan should be moved to the front of the line for the Harpoons,” Gallagher said. For Saudi Arabia to receive the missiles first “doesn’t make any strategic sense to me,” he said.

Riyadh’s purchase essentially allowed Boeing to restart a dying production line, according to the congressional aide and other people familiar with the matter. The cost of restarting the line was about $500 million, said one person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

Complicating matters, the Saudis paid for sea-based launchers, which is not what Taiwan needs. But “someone would have to reimburse the Saudis for those launchers” even if the Saudis were willing to step aside and let the Taiwanese receive the missiles first, the aide said.

Experts say the slow pace of arms deliveries is a function of structural challenges arising out of how foreign military sales are completed. In the Harpoon instance, even though Taiwan paid the U.S. Navy $1.6 billion in May 2021 for 400 Harpoon missiles and 100 coastal-defense launchers, the Navy still has not entered into a contract with Boeing to begin missile production, the person familiar with the matter said.

Gallagher said he came away from his four-day visit with a sense that “the Taiwanese are doing everything we could ask of them” in terms of boosting their own defense.

He noted that they are increasing their defense spending by a record 14 percent to 2.4 percent of gross domestic product; many NATO countries still fall below the 2 percent of GDP guideline. The spending hike followed China’s aggressive response to the visit of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Taiwan in August, firing ballistic missiles over the island and apparently simulating a maritime blockade of Taiwan.

Gallagher, well aware of the furor caused by Pelosi’s visit, said he deliberately kept his own visit quiet to have more productive meetings. A senior U.S. defense official made a visit at the same time, which leaked and was front-page news in Taiwan.

There has been speculation about a potential visit by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), which would raise Beijing’s ire. But, Gallagher said, “I don’t know of any active plans by Speaker McCarthy to go. If he wants to go, he certainly can.” It’s not for the Chinese to “veto” any lawmaker’s plans, he added.

Gallagher said he intends to hold a select committee hearing in Taiwan — hopefully before summer and then report back to McCarthy on its findings. That would better inform the speaker’s plans, and he and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) could visit possibly after Taiwan’s next presidential election in early 2024.

China has already begun to cast a shadow over the election, Gallagher said he was told. It’s part of what Tsai, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party, calls “cognitive warfare” — an effort to mold the narrative to suit its aims, he said.

The opposition Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, is in favor of warmer cross-strait relations and benefits by such a narrative, he said.

Beijing is attempting to “convince the people of Taiwan that the DPP is going to recklessly take them into war, and that the Americans are just using Taiwan as a pawn — that when the fighting starts, we’re content to let the Taiwanese die in order just to slow down China and we won’t do any of the fighting,” Gallagher said.

Christian Shepherd contributed to this report.