Spike in China tensions won’t change US Taiwan weapons policy, for now

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – China’s aggressive military drills around Taiwan in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit put Washington on edge, but not enough to spur an immediate sharp increase in weapons sales to the island, sources told Reuters.

President Joe Biden’s administration and US lawmakers stress their ongoing support for the government in Taipei, and there are items in the approval pipeline for Taiwan that could be announced in the coming weeks or months.

But the focus will be on sustaining Taiwan’s current military systems and fulfilling existing orders – rather than offering new capabilities more likely to inflame already red-hot tensions with China, said three sources, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

“I think there will be an attempt to push stuff to Taiwan, and not just weapons. Supplies, should there – God forbid – be an embargo. More munitions. Lower-level stuff,” one source close to political-level talks on US-Taiwan arms sales said.

Such approvals could be announced as soon as September, the sources said, noting it would be a signal that Beijing’s blockade-style drills following Mrs Pelosi’s early August visit had not shaken US support.

Critics of the administration’s approach argue those drills, China’s largest ever around the island, should be a wake-up call to encourage Washington to do more for Taiwan.

For its part, Taiwan on Thursday proposed a 13.9 per cent year-on-year increase to a record US$19.41 billion (S$27 billion) in its defence budget for next year.

A blockade, for example, would challenge one of the core tenets of the United States’ Taiwan Relations Act, which defines any boycott or embargo toward Taiwan as a threat to greater security in the Western Pacific. The law also requires US provision of equipment for Taiwan’s self-defence.

White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell – asked during a recent briefing whether the administration was considering both invasion and blockade scenarios – said defence sales would be designed to meet “the evolving security circumstances that Taiwan faces.”

Both scenarios, Mr Campbell said, “are indeed taken into our calculus, and you will see that going forward.”

Since 2017, US presidents have approved more than US$18 billion in arms sales to the Chinese-claimed island, the largest portion of that coming in the second half of the Trump administration. But new approvals have slowed under Biden, amid delivery backlogs and reports of disagreement between Washington and Taipei over what the island needs.

Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States, Hsiao Bi-khim, told Reuters last week that following China’s drills there was still a “practice of continuing arms sales”.

“I think what we are trying to do is ensure that these are regularised, normalised processes,” Ms Hsiao said.

“In earlier years they would put big packages together, wait a few years to make a big announcement. That’s no longer the practice. Our requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and we will proceed as such,” she said.

The White House National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment.