UPDATED : Friday, 16 June, 2017, 6:18pm
Taiwan has welcomed calls by lawmakers in the United States for the Trump administration to speed up arms sales to the island.
The calls came after the central American nation Panama announced this week that it was switching ties from Taipei to Beijing, dealing a political blow to the island.
The Taiwanese authorities, including the foreign ministry and the Mainland Affairs Council, have expressed appreciation for the call for speedier arms sales made by members of the US House of Representatives during a meeting on US-Taiwan ties. They see it as a timely boost as Beijing tries to woo away the island’s allies.
But analysts said the gesture of support and recent remarks by the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis were more aimed at boosting confidence levels in Taiwan rather than signalling concrete measures to help the island.
Ed Royce, the chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the hearing in Washington on Thursday: “I remain concerned about successive administrations’ delays in arms sales notification for Taiwan, which have needlessly dragged out the arms sales process.”
Royce said he hoped to see regular notifications in the future and looked forward to the announcement of new sales this year.
US President Donald Trump is crafting a big new arms package this year for Taiwan, which may include advanced rocket systems and anti-ship missiles, unnamed US officials told the Reuters news agency in March.
Previous reports said the package could be larger than the US$1.8 billion arms sales authorised by former US president Barack Obama at the end of his administration in December 2015, the first US arms deal to the island in four years.
Tillerson said on Wednesday the Trump administration was committed to the Taiwan Relations Act, which underscores the US supply of defence equipment the island.
Mattis also said in his opening remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum held in Singapore earlier this month that his department remained steadfastly committed to working with Taiwan to provide the defence equipment it needs.
Christine Hsueh, director of North American affairs at Taiwan’s foreign ministry, called the remarks by the senior US officials and congressmen “rather positive”, indicating the Trump administration has “high intention to abide by its security commitment for Taiwan”.
Chiu Chui-cheng, the vice-chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, said he hoped the US would continue to supply arms to Taiwan in line with the Taiwan Relations Act.
“Our President Tsai Ing-wen has many times called on the US side to supply appropriate arms for Taiwan in an effort to maintain cross-strait and regional stability,” he said. “It is the obligation for both sides of the Taiwan Strait to maintain cross-strait and regional stability and we hope Beijing can seek to resolve our disputes through dialogue.”
Beijing has suspended talks and any exchanges with Taipei since Tsai from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party took office in May last year.
She has refused to accept the 1992 consensus – an agreement between the mainland and Taiwan which states that there is only one China, but each side can have its own interpretation of what that means. Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway Chinese province.
To step up pressure on Tsai’s government, Beijing has wooed away the island’s allies, including Panama and the African state of Sao Tome and Principe in December last year.
Beijing has also warned the US and other countries against selling arms to Taiwan and previous American munitions sales to the island have met with strong protests from the mainland.
Rupert Hammond-Chambers, the president of the US-Taiwan Business Council, recommended at the meeting in Washington on Thursday that Trump invite Taiwan to become a partner in the procurement process for the F-35 stealth fighter programme, while simultaneously integrating Taiwan’s industry into the aircraft’s supply chain.
Taiwan analysts said the remarks from Tillerson and Mattis were not a firm signal that the Trump administration would soon confirm new US arms sales to Taiwan.
“It can only show that the voice of support for Taiwan is strong, but further discussion of the arms package between Taipei and Washington are still needed,” said Andrew Yang, a former defence minister in Taiwan and the secretary general of the China Council of Advanced Policy Studies.
Yang said the two sides were likely to discuss the arms package next month.
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