US preparing to sell over US$2 billion in weapons to Taiwan, testing China

Taiwanese soldiers sit on an M60A3 tank for a group photograph after an anti-invasion drill in Taichung, Taiwan. (AFP pic)

WASHINGTON: The United States is pursuing the sale of more than US$2 billion worth of tanks and weapons to Taiwan, four people familiar with the negotiations said, in a move likely to anger China as a trade war between the world’s two biggest economies escalates.

An informal notification of the proposed sale has been sent to the US Congress, the four sources said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak about the possible deal.

The potential sale included 108 General Dynamics Corp M1A2 Abrams tanks worth around US$2 billion as well as anti-tank and anti-aircraft munitions, three of the sources said. Taiwan has been interested in refreshing its existing US-made battle tank inventory which includes M60 Patton tanks.

The US is a main arms supplier to Taiwan, which China deems its own and has never renounced the use of force to bring the self-ruled island under its control.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said in March that the US was responding positively to Taipei’s requests for new arms sales to bolster its defenses in the face of pressure from China. The US has no formal ties with Taiwan but is bound by law to help provide it with the means to defend itself.

China and the US are engaged in a fierce trade war, with clashes over Taiwan and the South China Sea exacerbating tensions.

A spokesman for the State Department, which oversees foreign military sales, said the US government does not comment on or confirm potential or pending arms sales or transfers before they have been formally notified to Congress.

The congressional notifications included a variety of anti-tank munitions including 409 Raytheon Co and Lockheed Martin Corp-made Javelin missiles worth as much as US$129 million, two of the sources said.

In addition, the notifications included 1,240 TOW anti-tank missiles worth as much as US$299 million, one of the sources said adding that there were also 250 stinger missiles worth as much as US$223 million in the notification.

Stingers are often used in man-portable anti-aircraft weapons systems.

In 2018, US President Donald Trump’s administration rolled out a long-awaited overhaul of US arms export policy aimed at expanding sales to allies, saying it would bolster the American defense industry and create jobs at home.

One of the administration’s architects of that policy was Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro. Navarro, a China hawk, wrote about the possible sale of tanks to Taiwan in a March opinion column in the New York Times ahead of a presidential trip to the Lima, Ohio plant where they are made.

At a low point, the US Army had only one tank coming from the plant a month, General Dynamics CEO Phebe Novakovic said during an April conference call with investors, but said “we’ll be rolling out 30 tanks a month by the end of this year,” partly because of international orders.

Last week, the Pentagon announced it would sell 34 ScanEagle drones, made by Boeing Co to the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam for US$47 million.

The drones would afford greater intelligence gathering capabilities potentially curbing Chinese activity in the region.

China claims almost all of the strategic South China Sea and frequently lambastes the US and its allies over naval operations near Chinese-occupied islands. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have competing claims.

Last weekend, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe warned the US not to meddle in security disputes over Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told the meeting that the US would no longer “tiptoe” around China’s behaviour in Asia.