Trump’s Ten Arms Sales to Taiwan, Military Rebalance in the Taiwan Strait

Despite the pending result of the U.S. presidential election, whoever wins will not change the fact that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan during the Trump administration have been lifted to the next level. In the course of the Trump administration for the last four years, not only has the number of arms sales reached ten times, but the quantity and quality of weapons sold have also exceeded the previous standards over the past 40 years. The purpose of arms sales is to counterbalance China's expanding military power in the Taiwan Strait. By backing Taiwan's self-defense capabilities, the U.S. helps deter China's ambition of military invasion, maintaining peace and stability in the region while ensuring the U.S. national interests of security are intact. 


It is China's continuing military expansion in recent years that prompted the Trump administration to boost support for Taiwan. Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) accelerates mustering over three hundred and fifty warships and submarines, including new 055 destroyers, type-075 amphibious warships, and 002/003 aircraft carriers. It also expanded the marine corps to one hundred thousand people; Its air force never stopped developing the F-20 stealth jet, F-16 fighter, and Y-20 military transport aircraft. It also hastened the development of various medium-range missiles, such as the Dongfeng 17 hypersonic missile. China's military expansion not only aims to take down Taiwan but also targets the United States.


Moreover, Chinese President Xi Jinping is not shy in showing his ambitions to invade Taiwan and contend with the United States. When the U.S. aircraft carrier was suffering from the onboard COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year, Xi took advantage of the void and swooped in with China's "Liaoning" aircraft carrier fleet around Taiwan. In the following months, the Chinese military aircrafts unabashedly trespassed the Taiwan Strait centerline and the Southwest Air Defense Identification Zone belonging to Taiwan. PLA has stepped up its military pressure, attempting to coerce Taiwan into submission. 


To counter the military imbalance across the Taiwan Strait, President Trump moved forward his first arms sales to Taiwan after taking office in June 2017, though the sales model did not break away from the past practice, with seven arms sales packaged with one commercial sale. The package consists of three offensive weapons, including AGM-88B anti-radiation missiles, AGM-154C (JSOW) combined remote attack weapons and MK-48 Mod6 AT heavy torpedoes, as well as MK46 torpedo performance enhancement and standard type II missile backup group section, long-range early warning radar maintenance case, and SLQ-32(V) 6 used for Gide ship electronic warfare system upgrades. The commercial sale is the Mk-41 vertical launch system.


The package mentioned above has, in fact, crossed the previous baseline of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan of "defensive weapons." It gave Taiwan the ability of “Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses” (SEAD) and the long-range standoff striking capacity. AGM-154C (JSOW) and MK-48 Mod6 AT heavy torpedoes are also weapons on active service in the U.S. military fighters and submarines.


Content of the next two arms sales by the Trump administration in 2018 and 2019, including C-130 and F-16 fighter parts and accessories, and Taiwanese pilots training program in the United States, were actually ongoing cases. The intentional announcements were more of a political statement than military significance. The U.S. decided to bring the deals to the open and test the waters on Beijing's reaction to U.S. policy change.


In July and August of 2019, Trump made successive announcements of major arms sales to Taiwan, including 108 M1A2 tanks and 66 new F-16V fighters, signalizing a breakthrough in 28 years. Even though the package was not the F-35B hidden fighter that Taiwan craves most, it helps Taiwan maintain its traditional combat capabilities. It is extra useful during non-wartime for Taiwan to monitor and counteract the PLA's aircraft's harassment.


In May and July 2020, successive two arms sales with significant political implications were approved again, including Taiwan's request to recertify its Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles and to acquire MK-48 Mod6 Advanced Technology (AT) Heavy Weight Torpedoes (HWT). Though the former was supposed to be included in the previous annual procurement plan, and the latter was simply a part of the acquired torpedoes from 2017, it is a contingency plan to ease Taiwan's navy budget. Therefore, Washington's high profile is a deliberate declaration of U.S. arms sales' policy change.


Between October and November this year, the most recent sales include 135 AGM-84H (SLAM-ER) air-launched cruise missiles and 11 HIMARS M142 Launchers (including 64 Army Tactical Missile Systems and 6 MS-110 Multispectral Airborne Reconnaissance System). On October 26, another sale of four hundred RGM-84L Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems and one hundred Launcher Transporter Units; on the U.S. presidential election day, the U.S. State Department made another announcement without hesitation of the sale of four MQ-9B SkyGuardian unmanned aerial systems to Taiwan. Rumor has it that Mk-62 Quickstrike Mines and M109 self-propelled howitzers are also on the list, although not yet announced. In light of their defensive nature, approval in the following review is expected.


In less than four years, the Trump administration's arms sales to Taiwan have significantly surpassed any previous U.S. administrations over the past 40 years, no matter quantitatively or qualitatively. Taiwan's defense capabilities have been substantially elevated and integrated on reconnaissance, combat, long-range precision, and multiple deterrence. Taiwan's military is now defensible as well as attackable.


The MQ-9B Marine Guardian UAV sold by the United States for the first time to its allies is equipped with a TPE-331-10 turbo engine with a payload capacity of 4,000 pounds. It is compatible with more sophisticated photoelectric detection equipment, including the ones already sold to Taiwan - MX-20 multi-spectral aiming system, SAGE 750 electronic surveillance measures (ESM), AN/DPX-7 IFF AN/DPX-7 Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) Transponder Test Requirements Documents, and Inertial Navigation System (EGI) with Anti-spoofing Module (SAASM), etc. The onboard photoelectric reconnaissance system provides all-weather and real-time high-resolution images.


The MQ-9B has an endurance of up to forty hours and the ability to reach the range of 6,000 nautical miles (11,000 kilometers) in distance and 40,000 feet in altitude. Also, its engine and wings are equipped with an Electro-Expulsive De-icing System (EEDS). MQ-9B will significantly boost Taiwan's capability of long-range, high-altitude aerial and maritime reconnaissance. It will also enhance Taiwan's real-time grasp of PLA's peacetime activities. It performs search and locate the target, reconnaissance and provide accurate guidance for rearguard attacks during wartime.


More importantly, the sale of MQ-9B comes with its supporting U.S. military satellite network and GPS, as well as its geospatial database. It will also further enhance Taiwan's C4ISR guidance and intelligence reconnaissance management. Combining the F-16 fighter aircraft's external MS-110 clip that can take all-weather high-resolution reconnaissance photos, Taiwan's military will be able to carry out cross-service joint operations.


The air-launched Harpoon SLAM-ER and ATACMS cruise missiles have a range of nearly 300 kilometers. F-16 mounted SLAM-ER has a combat radius of 600 kilometers, capable of long-range ground-based strikes on the PLA's eastern and southern theaters. ATACMS missiles can be used for cross-region reinforcements and anti-landing operations on the Island when co-operated with U.S. military GPS guidance and shore-mounted harpoon missiles. They can also be applied to attack various PLA amphibious ships. The total of up to 600 precision sea control and ground-launched missiles, on top of around 500 Taiwan's self-built Xiong 2, Xiong 3 ship-launched, and land-launched anti-ship missiles, will double Taiwan's anti-ship missile stingers to more than a thousand in no time.


After the Taiwan military is equipped with the muscles of "integrated reconnaissance and attack" and "long-distance precision," it will then have "multiple deterrence" and "offensive combining defensive" combat capabilities. Taiwan's long-range gun power can tactically deter PLA on the other side of the Strait and force the enemy to retreat northward or southward. It also means that China will be exposed to higher risk and left with more costly military options if it wishes to conquer Taiwan.


With those highly mobile weapons in a large amount that can be deployed separately, Taiwan stands a better chance of survival if at war. It helps Taiwan divert the risk of being destroyed in a single blow, dampening PLA's hopes of "winning the war with one battle." It is more difficult for China to take down Taiwan with joint amphibious attacks.


Besides the upgraded quality of weapons sold to Taiwan, the Trump administration has also made significant changes in the procedure and frequency of arms sales to Taiwan. There have been ten arms sales to Taiwan, including one in 2107, one in 2018, three in 2019, and five in 2020. However, the number of arms sales to Taiwan may no longer be the sole indicator of U.S. policy to Taiwan like it used to be. The arms sales model (except for the one in 2017) has changed into a "case-by-case" model based on allied states' needs. As long as Taiwan makes the request, Washington will send it to Congress for approval and announcement. Therefore, future observation of U.S. arms sales policy to Taiwan should focus on capacity instead of frequency.


Note that the Trump administration did not review its arms sales policy to Taiwan on a whim. The National Security Department of Washington had to have the strategic assessments ready and have gone through inter-departmental discussions before hatching the plan. Like the former "Taiwan friendly" White House consultant of national security John Bolton, before his resignation in August 2019, he declassified a confidential memo of the former U.S. President Reagan1982 US-China Communiqué. It is clear that Beijing's military expansion leads for the changing U.S. arms sales policy to Taiwan.


Reagan pointed out in the memorandum that the U.S. willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of the Taiwan-PRC differences. It is essential that the quantity and quality of the arms provided to Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC. In quantitative and qualitative terms, Taiwan's defense capability relative to that of the PRC will be maintained.


At the end of August 2020, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) released two declassified cables. The first one was sent on July 10, 1982, from then U.S. Under Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to then AIT Director James Lilley. The cable explains that the U.S. willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned upon the continued commitment of the PRC to a peaceful solution of cross-Strait differences. Further, if the PRC were to become more hostile, then the United States would increase arms sales to Taiwan. AIT elaborates that the United States' chief concern was maintaining peace across the Taiwan Strait, and thus, the quantity and quality of arms provided to Taiwan would be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC.


Compared with the Obama administration, which "never saw the elephant in the room" ( i.e., ignoring the growing threat from China), the Trump administration has just begun to face the reality that China has covertly stepped up its threat against the U.S. The stability in the Taiwan Strait is in the United States' national interest; hence Washington needs to speed up its arms sales to Taiwan to mitigate the ever-growing discrepancy of military power between China and Taiwan. Hence prevention of Taiwan's annexation by China, which will eventually infringe upon the United States' national security and interests.


As for the concern that U.S. arms sales may cripple Taiwan's defense independence, the ultimate solution depends upon Taiwan's national defense resources and technology strength. Suppose Taiwan's defense resources can be appropriately allocated and is capable of developing weapons that outperform purchased ones. In that case, Taiwan can surely enjoy the indigenous options alone with foreign acquisitions, or even better, be self-sufficient. However, if the military authority remains lopsided to outsourcing, it can only indicate that its research and development capability is not yet up to par. Especially in the face of a growing threat from China, weaponry capacity holds the key to the final decision.


The pending U.S. presidential election result raises Taiwan's anxiety level because of the possible arms sale policy change following a new Washington administration. However, it takes only a careful inventory to realize that the sum of arms sold to Taiwan during Trump's administration has almost matched the Taiwan military’s wishing list in the past ten years. Even if Trump gets re-elected, Taiwan will have no imminent military requisition need except for some F-35B fighters, KC-135 Stratotankers, Aegis combat systems (or JASSM-ER or LRASM), and MH-53 anti-submarine helicopters.


Even if Biden wins the election and puts off major weapons sales to Taiwan in the near future, Taiwan and the U.S. will be able to maintain their military exchanges and cooperation to a certain extent because of the set training, technical transfer, and assembling programs that came with the sealed deals during Trump's tenure. Let alone the fact that the budget worthy of US$18 billion will take several years to implement. The military also needs to accomplish the recruitment, installation, and training before these weapons' full potential can be unlocked.



Safeguarding Taiwan's security, in essence, relies on Taiwan itself. In addition to military acquisitions from the U.S., Taiwan needs to accelerate its reforms on strategic mindset, military service system, and reserve mobilizations. Aside from upgrading battle hardware, the bolstering of Taiwan's national morale and willpower is even more critical in the face of China's military threat. A united front is much needed for Taiwan to avoid being annexed by China. Naturally, Taiwan's general public anticipates Washington's consistent arm sale policies if Baden turns out to be the winner. Taiwan needs continuous support from the U.S. to ensure peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.



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