The US Is Quietly Arming Taiwan to the Teeth

When US President Joe Biden recently signed off on a $80m (£64.6m) grant to Taiwan for the purchase of American military equipment, China said it “deplores and opposes” what Washington had done.

To the casual observer it didn’t appear a steep sum. It was less than the cost of a single modern fighter jet. Taiwan already has on order more than $14bn worth of US military equipment. Does a miserly $80m more matter?

While fury is Beijing’s default response to any military support for Taiwan, this time something was different.

The $80m is not a loan. It comes from American taxpayers. For the first time in more than 40 years, America is using its own money to send weapons to a place it officially doesn’t recognise. This is happening under a programme called foreign military finance (FMF).

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, FMF has been used to send around $4bn of military aid to Kyiv.

It has been used to send billions more to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Egypt and so on. But until now it has only ever been given to countries or organisations recognised by the United Nations. Taiwan is not.

After the US switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, it continued to sell weapons to the island under the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act. The key was to sell just enough weapons so Taiwan could defend itself against possible Chinese attack, but not so many that they would destabilise relations between Washington and Beijing. For decades, the US has relied on this so-called strategic ambiguity to do business with China, while remaining Taiwan’s staunchest ally.

But in the last decade the military balance across the Taiwan Strait has tipped dramatically in China’s favour. The old formula no longer works. Washington insists its policy has not changed but, in crucial ways, it has. The US State Department has been quick to deny FMF implies any recognition of Taiwan.

Yongkang St and the surrounding lanes are considered a must-see destination in Taipei,
Image caption,Taiwan, a self-governed island, faces the threat of annexation from China

But in Taipei it’s apparent that America is redefining its relationship with the island, especially so given the urgency with which Washington is pushing Taiwan to re-arm. And Taiwan, which is outmatched by China, needs the help.

“The US is emphasising the desperate need to improve our military capacity. It is sending a clear message of strategic clarity to Beijing that we stand together,” says Wang Ting-yu, a ruling party legislator with close ties to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, and to US Congressional chiefs.

He says the $80m is the tip of what could be a very large iceberg, and notes that in July President Biden used discretionary powers to approve the sale of military services and equipment worth $500m to Taiwan.

Mr Wang says Taiwan is preparing to send two battalions of ground troops to the US for training, the first time this has happened since the 1970s.

But the key is the money, the beginning of what, he says, could be up to $10bn over the next five years.

Deals involving military equipment can take up to 10 years, says Lai I-Ching, president of the Prospect Foundation, a Taipei-based think-tank. “But with FMF, the US is sending weapons directly from its own stocks and it’s US money – so we don’t need to go through the whole approval process.”

This is important given that a divided Congress has held up billions of dollars worth of aid for Ukraine, although Taiwan appears to have far more bipartisan support.

But the war in Gaza will undoubtedly squeeze America’s weapons supply to Taipei, as has the war in Ukraine. President Biden is seeking war aid for Ukraine and Israel, which includes more money for Taiwan too.

Chinese Navy missile frigate Yulin (R) and the minesweeper hunter Chibi (C) are seen docked at Changi Naval Base during the IMDEX Asia warships display in Singapore on May 4, 2023
Image caption,China now boasts the world’s larget navy – its navy missile frigate Yulin (R) and a minesweeper hunter Chibi (C) docked in Singapore in May 2023

Ask the Ministry of National Defence in Taipei what US money will be used for, and the response is a knowing smile and tightly sealed lips.

But Dr Lai says it’s possible to make educated guesses: Javelin and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles – highly effective weapons that forces can learn to use quickly.

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