Thursday, September 24, 2020

US arms sales to Taiwan a regional provocation

 Written by: (Contributed) on 25 September 2020

The announcement that the Trump administration was increasing arms sales to Taiwan has resulted in further diplomatic tensions with China.

The recent US diplomatic stand-off with China has focused on several regional flashpoints, with the South China Seas being a central concern.

The relationship of Taiwan to the South China Seas and their own strategic territorial claims has, however, been quietly pushed down US agendas to avoid unfavourable publicity.

In September, The Trump administration announced a further $7 billion arms deal with Taiwan, in addition to the already planned $15 billion allocated in previous defence budgets. The latest arms deal also included provision of a US$400 million package of MQ-9B Reaper drones, sensors, logistics, ground control stations, training and other related equipment. (1)

The latest arms deals also coincided with an official visit by US under-secretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, Keith Krach, to Taipei, where high-level diplomatic talks with Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and President Tsai Ing-wen had been arranged. (2) The talks followed similar high-level diplomacy in August when US cabinet member, Alex Azar visited Taipei.

Similar diplomatic initiatives conducted by the Czech Republic, which included a large trade delegation to Taiwan, were also subsequently viewed by China in a very dim light. (3)

China, historically, has regarded Taiwan as a renegade province; any favourable diplomacy with Taipei has therefore been challenged by China, which has maintained territorial claims toward the small landmass.

The dramatic rise of China to become the world's second biggest economy, has altered the balance of forces across the Asia-Pacific region. It has been regarded by the US as a threat to traditional hegemonic positions. US Cold War diplomacy has subsequently drawn their regional allies even closer in an attempt to challenge perceived Chinese influences.

Several flash-points can be observed as a conspicuous part of the US-led wave of militarism sweeping the region: Australia and Japan are the two main regional hubs for 'US interests', with neighbouring countries clustered as spokes. A main Pentagon focus, however, has remained the South China Seas, a long, congested series of shipping-lanes which link the Asia-Pacific region with the Indian Ocean, Middle East and European markets.

China's recently constructed fortifications in the South China Seas have enabled ready access into Oceania and have, therefore, been regarded by the US as a serious challenge to their hegemonic positions. Little, however, has been openly stated by the US about Taiwan's strategic claims for the same areas; they are virtually the same as China's.

Taiwan has established sovereign access to Itu Aba, which they re-named Taiping Island, 1.4 kms long and 0.4 kms wide, adjacent to Ban Than reef and part of the Nansha (Spratly) Islands (see National Geographic map of the Nansha Islands above). It has also established living quarters on the island for a small permanent community, together with the construction of an airport, hospital, and other facilities to support long-stay inhabitants. (4)

A particularly significant feature of the Taiwanese strategic claim to the landmass has included the airport landing-strip and run-way which cover the whole length of the island, supporting a view that it was constructed for major logistics and military purposes. No publicity about the Taiwanese fortifications, however, has been noted in official US media releases.

Itu Aba, it should also be noted, is strategically-placed on the arc from Pine Gap which swings from Diego Garcia to Guam, which are major US-led regional intelligence facilities for military and security provision. The Taiwanese government has also linked Itu Aba with cell-phone and internet services which can easily be used for military communications.

The US regional intelligence presence with its surveillance of the Chinese fortifications tends to reveal their extensive use of satellite systems, which possess high-quality vision transmission to monitor details of the facilities when re-produced in mainstream media releases in photographic form. (5)

It is important to note the Cold War diplomatic silence from the US about other fortifications in the South China Seas has also followed the same common pattern: they only complain about China.

The Philippines, for example, occupies nine landmasses in the Nansha (Spratly) Islands  which were collectively re-named as the Kalayaan Island Group by previous presidential administrations in Manila. They have living quarters for about a hundred permanent residents and a military base. The Philippine military have also established an air-strip on nearby Pag-asa Island.

Vietnam has, likewise, established outposts in the same area of the South China Seas, which include infra-structure facilities. Malaysia has also established a top-end of the tourist market dive report with dual-use facilities as a naval base. (6)

Japan, as the northern regional hub for 'US interests', has also been a player with these US-led operations. In 2015 Japanese foreign policy initiatives included the provision of ten coastguard vessels to the Philippines and Vietnam. (7) It was also announced that Japanese funding for upgrading of a Philippine military base on Palawan Island was being considered, as the facilities were the closest to the Nansha (Spratly) Islands and therefore regarded as useful for rapid deployment. (8)

It is highly significant to note the latest US $7 billion arms deal with Taiwan has been largely composed of military equipment usually associated with intelligence-gathering and related military functions; drones and their ground-control equipment are used as surveillance systems together with tracking and targeting adversaries for assassinations.

Previous US arms deals with Taiwan were largely composed of military equipment usually associated with traditional defence and security provision, including tanks and armoured vehicles to prevent military incursions and aircraft for attack positions with strategic targets.

Taiwan also already has extensive air defence missile defence systems for surveillance purposes. (9)  

It remains to be established, therefore, where the latest US military equipment for Taiwan will be based, either on a permanent or temporary basis. Drones have a limited range although Taiwan's military facilities on Itu Aba provide coverage of the South China Seas for a variety of purposes. The silence, to date, however, would appear deafening: the Pentagon, clearly, do not want any publicity.  

With Australia being drawn into these US-led military plans for real-war scenarios, we need an independent foreign policy!


1.     US to sell Taipei drones in $10 billion weapons deal, Australian, 18 September 2020.
2.     Envoy's visit to Taiwan triggers Chinese military manoeuvres, The Weekend Australian, 19-20 September 2020.
3.     Military build-up blamed on America, Australian, 11 September 2020.
4.     Roque: We're not behind our rivals in reef dev't, The Philippine Inquirer, 9 May 2018.
5.     See: China installs cruise missiles on Phil reef, The Philippine Star, 4 May 2018.
6.     Philippine Inquirer, op.cit., 9 May 2018.
7.     Tokyo eyes new South China Seas role, The Age (Melbourne), 12 March 2015.
8.     Ibid.
9.     We will retaliate against Chinese attack: Taiwan, Australian, 23 September 2020.  

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