WASHINGTON: The US State Department has approved the possible sale to Taiwan of M1A2T Abrams tanks, Stinger missiles and related equipment at an estimated value of US$2.2 billion, the Pentagon said on Monday (Jul 8), despite Chinese criticism of the deal.
It would be the first big-ticket US military sale to Taiwan in decades, and comes amid already strained ties between Washington and Beijing - which has expressed "serious concerns" about the weapons.
China's Foreign Ministry said last month when the possible sale was first reported that it was seriously concerned about US arms sales to self-ruled Taiwan, and it urged the United States to halt the sales to avoid harming bilateral ties.
US lawmakers have 30 days to object to the sale but are unlikely to do so.
The sale of the weapons requested by Taiwan, including 108 General Dynamics Corp M1A2T Abrams tanks and 250 Stinger missiles, would not alter the basic military balance in the region, the Pentagon's Defence Security Cooperation Agency said in a statement.
The proposed tank sale "will contribute to the modernisation of the recipient's main battle tank fleet, enhancing its ability to meet current and future regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense," DSCA added in the statement.
And the 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.
DSCA notified Congress on Monday of the possible arms sale, which it said could also include mounted machine guns, ammunition, Hercules armoured vehicles for recovering inoperative tanks, heavy equipment transporters and related support.
Reuters reported last month that an informal notification of the proposed sale had been sent to the US Congress.
The United States is the main arms supplier to Taiwan, which China deems a renegade province. Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.
"We have repeatedly emphasised to the US to fully understand the extremely sensitive and damaging nature of their decision to sell arms to Taiwan, and abide by the One China principle," foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said in March that Washington was responding positively to Taipei's requests for new arms sales to bolster its defences in the face of pressure from China. The United States has no formal ties with Taiwan but is bound by law to help provide it with the means to defend itself.
Taiwan's Defence Ministry confirmed it had requested those weapons and that the request was proceeding normally.
The US commitment to providing Taiwan with the weapons to defend itself helps Taipei's military raise its combat abilities, consolidates the Taiwan-US security partnership and ensures Taiwan's security, the ministry said last month in a statement.
The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, but has remained an important ally - and arms supplier - to Taipei. Laws passed that year by Congress required Washington to provide the island with means of self-defense.
But it has been wary of big-ticket military equipment sales to Taiwan in recent years, fearful of stoking anger in Beijing.
President Donald Trump - whose administration is locked in a trade war with China - has however sought to strengthen ties with Taiwan and appears more willing to sell arms.
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 its aging air force.
"Taiwan stands in the frontline of China's ambitious expansion and faces enormous threats and pressure from Beijing," the Taiwanese foreign ministry said in a statement.
"This arms sale of M1A2 tanks and various missiles will help greatly to increase our defensive capabilities."
Abrams tanks and Stinger missiles - which are portable and can be quickly moved by soldiers in the field - would significantly increase Taiwan's ability to counter Chinese armor and warplanes in the event of an invasion.
"The M1A2 tanks are very reliable and will become an essential part of our ground defense" because of their maneuverability, Lt Gen Yang Hai-ming of the Taiwanese army told reporters.
"Having the M1A2 to replace our older tanks will quickly and effectively boost our defense capability."