THE US STATE DEPARTMENT’S approval of the sale of three weapons systems to Taiwan worth $1.8 billion still requires US Congressional sign-off. However, there is ample cross-party support, so this and future weapons sales are likely to go through on the nod.
This consignment includes missiles, truck-based missile launchers and sensors for fighter jets. Drones and cruise missiles are to be included in the next sale. The ticket on that is reportedly $5 billion.
The Trump administration has significantly increased US arms sales to Taipei compared to its predecessor. In parallel, Beijing has stepped up intimidatory military exercises and PLA Air Force incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone.
If Joe Biden becomes US president following next month’s US election, his administration could scale back arms sales if it wanted to de-escalate tension with China. He has, however, given no indication contrary to the expectation that he will continue to strengthen US defence ties with Taipei. The Obama administration in which he was vice-president sold arms to Taiwan even during periods of US-China tension over island-building in the South China Sea.
More likely is scaling back symbolic support such as official visits, which will be less controversial in Washington, and appreciated in Beijing if done without fuss. However, what Beijing will most be watching for is signs that a Biden administration would be willing to separate Taiwan from US-China disputes over trade, technology and human rights.
The growing asymmetry in economic and military power across the Taiwan Strait probably means that President Xi Jinping, like Mao, can wait it out, sure that unification on China’s terms will happen one day.
The risk of miscalculation remains high, mainly if Beijing takes it upon itself to provide the Biden administration with an early test of its theory that the United States is in secular decline.