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In letters, U.S. tries to reshape Taiwan’s weapons requests

The Biden administration is rebuffing some of Taiwan’s requests for big-ticket weapons, instead urging Taipei to buy other equipment the U.S. believes will better deter and defend against China, according to U.S. and Taiwanese officials and documents obtained by POLITICO.

The Army told Taiwan in a March letter that it should buy an upgraded version of a mobile artillery system Taipei had requested years ago. In a separate March letter, the State Department told Taiwan that it would not respond to a request for a pricey helicopter designed for hunting submarines.

The moves are part of a push by the Biden administration as the threat of a Chinese invasion appears to become more urgent, officials say. They also come as Washington, Taipei and Beijing are watching for parallels in Ukraine’s existential fight against Russia.

“They are concerned about a timeline that [China] might have, the urgency, and that Taiwan has not had an acquisition strategy focused on the counter-invasion scenario,” said Randy Schriver, a top Asia policy official in the Pentagon during the Trump administration. “These are platforms and weapons that maybe are not optimized for that.”

Taiwan has made clear its interest in larger American-made weapons such as the MH-60R Seahawk helicopter. But the Biden administration is trying to convince Taipei that these expensive items, while fine for peacetime operations, would not survive an all-out assault from the mainland.

Instead, the administration is urging Taipei to learn from Ukraine and invest in smaller, mobile systems such as drone swarms, Stinger anti-tank missiles and Javelin anti-aircraft missiles, which are less vulnerable to China’s advanced weapons, officials said.

“We want to be a partner. Part of that is having those tough conversations,” said one U.S. official familiar with the issue, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “A certain system may not be in their interest. If they are limited in resources they should be spending resources on ways to complicate invasions.”

But Taiwanese officials have recently expressed frustration about delays in delivery of the American-made weapons they have on order. A purchase of M109A6 Paladin self-propelled howitzers has been held up due to a crowded production line, while an order of Stingers has also been delayed, Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said last week.

And some U.S.-based experts said the administration is taking too hard a line, and should allow Taiwan to go through its processes and decide what it needs for its own defense.

Bonnie Glaser, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said Washington had been trying to persuade Taiwan to buy different weapons for a long time, but that there’s a greater sense of urgency now.

“There’s been a lot of back and forth … and there’s been some convergence,” Glaser said, adding that the Taiwanese sometimes argue that they still need certain capabilities in peacetime to protect their airspace.

Regarding discussions about the MH-60R, a top State Department official told Taipei this spring that the administration “has decided not to respond” to the self-governing island’s request for the helicopters, according to a March 11 letter obtained by POLITICO.

The Pentagon and State Department believe the helicopters will not “enhance Taiwan’s ability to deter [China’s] aggressive actions and defend itself,” according to the letter, sent from Jessica Lewis, the assistant secretary of State for the bureau of political-military affairs, to Vice Minister Po Horng-Huei.

Instead, Lewis urged Taipei to invest in more “cost efficient” capabilities such as command and control systems, surveillance, short-range air defenses and naval sea mines.

Reuters reported last week that the U.S. has rejected the request, but the contents of the letter have not previously been disclosed.

“Bolstering Taiwan’s self-defenses is an urgent task and the most effective approach to doing so is through investing in asymmetric capabilities that are credible, resilient, mobile, distributed, and cost-effective,” a State Department official told POLITICO. “Continuing to pursue systems that will not meaningfully contribute to an effective defense strategy is inconsistent with the evolving security threat that Taiwan faces.”

Taipei seems to have conceded on the MH-60R. Taiwan’s defense minister signaled last week that the country had abandoned the plan to buy the helicopters, saying the price was too high.

The administration also urged Taiwan in a separate letter dated March 22 to consider buying an upgraded mobile artillery system, the self-propelled M109A7 Paladin, instead of the older version Taipei requested in 2020. In the letter, Erik Uribe, the Army’s regional desk officer for security cooperation integration and exports, warned of delays in delivery of the A6s due to “known obsolescence issues.” State’s suggestion that Taiwan buy a different gun has not been reported.

The Army itself is retiring the older artillery in favor of the A7 version, Uribe wrote.

“Opting for the A7 would align Taiwan’s indirect fires capabilities with the U.S. Army’s, leading to cost-saving, interoperability, and production capacity benefits,” Uribe wrote. Further, the Army estimates the annual operating cost for one A7 to be $250,000 less than for the A6.

Uribe also suggested Taipei consider buying the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System for “a similar capability with a faster delivery schedule.”

For its part, Taiwan said it would consider alternative options after the United States told it that delivery of the Paladins would be delayed.

But artillery maker BAE Systems said the company is ready to ramp up production for either the A6 or A7 Taiwan once a contract is finalized.

“Our production capacity can support the needs of the Taiwan Ministry of Defense without compromising contract commitments with existing customers,” company spokesperson Veronica Bonilla told POLITICO.

The company has extra capacity to build the new guns because the Army’s fiscal 2023 budget request proposes buying fewer systems, about 50 percent than the current level, an industry source who is not authorized to speak on the record told POLITICO.

Meanwhile, officials say the Stinger delay is due to Covid-related challenges in the supply chain, not high demand due to the Ukraine conflict.

The State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council are in agreement that Taiwan needs more asymmetrical capabilities, particularly now that a Chinese invasion appears more likely, the official said.

“These are not regular times. If you’re going to start spending money, that money should be on naval sea mines and anti-ship missiles,” the person said. “These are the kinds of things that we have indicated to industry and to Taiwan. President Tsai gets it.”

Taiwan is watching the war in Ukraine closely. Many civilians in Taiwan are expressing a greater desire to learn how they can play a role in defending their island and resisting Chinese forces if necessary, Glaser said, but it’s not yet clear how far the Taiwanese military will go to help prepare the civilian population.

The United States, too, needs to think hard about what it can or will do to help Taiwan in case of a Chinese invasion.

After all, it may not have as easy access to the island as it does to Ukraine. “We’re going to have a lot of challenges with Taiwan if the People’s Liberation Army decides to blockade the island,” Glaser said. “People have to start thinking hard.”

The trickiest part may be figuring out how to help Taiwan prepare without leaving Beijing feeling as if it must react. “We could provoke the attack that we’re seeking to deter,” Glaser said.

Lee Hudson and Paul McLeary contributed to this report.