American Institute in Taiwan director Brent Christensen with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. The Trump administration appears keen to support Tsai with weapons to prevent a Chinese invasion. Photo: Handout

The US State Department has approved a possible $2.2-billion arms deal for Taiwan – angering Beijing which called for Washington to “immediately cancel” the proposal.

The sale of more than 100 Abrams tanks, 250 Stinger missiles and other equipment was announced by the Pentagon on Monday. It said the sale of these weapons – plus armored vehicles, heavy equipment transporters and mounted machine guns – was requested by Taiwan and “would not alter the basic military balance in the region”.

China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province, had an angry reaction to the news, which has come at a sensitive time, just days after Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping agreed to restart talks on their protracted trade dispute.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang claimed on Tuesday that US arms sales to Taiwan were a violation of international law and a “crude interference in China’s internal affairs, harming China’s sovereignty and security interests,” Reuters reported.

“China is strongly dissatisfied and firmly opposed to this and has already made stern representations to the US side,” Geng said at the daily news briefing. “Taiwan is an inseparable part of China’s territory and nobody should underestimate the Chinese government’s and people’s firm determination to defend the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and oppose foreign interference.”

Threats and pressure

Taiwan, however, says the island stands on the frontline of China’s ambitious expansion and faces enormous threats and pressure from Beijing.

And President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party refuses to acknowledge that the island is part of “One China”.

Canadian author and China expert Jonathan Manthorpe, in a recent report for Asia Times, said that “polls show consistently that between 80% to 90% of Taiwanese want to keep their independence and only a minuscule minority – around 3% – want a political union with China.”

The Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), meanwhile, said the proposed tank sale “will contribute to the modernization of the recipient’s main battle tank fleet, enhancing its ability to meet current and future regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense.

The Stinger missiles would “support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security and defensive capability of the recipient, an important force for political stability, military balance, and economic progress in the region,” it said.

US lawmakers have 30 days to object to the sale but are unlikely to block the deal, observers say.

F-16s deal also planned

Indeed, this is the first of two possible arms deals – as Taiwan also wants to buy more than 60 F-16 fighter jets.

The second deal for the F-16 Vipers – likely to be worth more than $4.5 billion – could go to Congress next month, with the planes possibly delivered next year.

Taiwan has been ruled separately since the end of a civil war in 1949, but China has vowed to take control of the island, by force if necessary.

China has significantly stepped up diplomatic and military pressure on Taipei since Beijing-sceptic President Tsai was elected in 2016. It has staged military exercises near the island, and steadily reduced the already small number of nations that recognize Taiwan.

The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, but Taipei has remained an important ally. Laws passed that year by Congress required Washington to provide the island with means of self-defense.

The Obama administration was wary of big-ticket military equipment sales to Taiwan, fearful of stoking anger in Beijing.

But President Donald Trump – whose administration has been locked in a protracted trade war with China – has sought to strengthen ties with Taiwan and is willing to sell arms, insiders in Washington have said.

Taiwan would be massively outgunned in terms of troop numbers and firepower in any conflict with China, and has sought to upgrade much of its increasingly obsolete military equipment, especially in its air force.

Taiwan’s Presidential Office expressed “sincere gratitude” to the US for the arms sale.

The big question is whether these arms deals will affect the trade dispute between Washington and Beijing – as many analysts have suggested. That could mean ripple effects around the globe.

With reporting by AFP

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