US howitzer sale to Taiwan ‘halted,’ but mainland should remain alert over ‘advanced alternatives’
Published: May 02, 2022 06:13 PM
Truck-mounted self-propelled howitzers assigned to a combined-arms regiment under the PLA Xinjiang Military Command fire at targets during a live-fire training exercise in mid September, 2021.Photo:China Military
Photo:China Military

The first deal approved by the Biden administration to sell $750 million worth of arms to Taiwan, including 40 155mm M109A6 medium self-propelled howitzers, has been halted by the US, Taiwan's defense authority said. 

It said in a reply to local media that it has been notified by the US Department of State that the weapon sales, approved by the Biden administration in 2021, was being halted due to a crowded production line. Taiwan media said the Ukraine's heavy need of US arms has affected the production line. 

Experts said such a move cannot be viewed as "pro-Beijing," and the Chinese mainland should be wary of a possible step-up in arms sales to Taiwan as compensation in the future.

Taiwan's defense authority said they have been notified that the delivery of howitzers would be delayed until 2026. Although the island said even 2028 would be acceptable, the US decided to halt the deal and "develop advanced alternatives to meet actual operational needs," media reported. 

According to Taiwan news outlet, the pause of the howitzer sale means a complete cancelation, and the budget will be returned.

Xin Qiang, deputy director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, told the Global Times on Monday that self-propelled howitzer is a kind of weapon system which is very useful in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and that it cannot be ruled out that the US may supply Ukraine first under the condition of limited production capacity.

Based on statistics published by the CNBC, the last two US weapons packages sent to Ukraine included a total of 90 howitzer artillery systems. "The US may believe that the current arms business is more applicable, and probably more profitable in Ukraine than in Taiwan island," Xin said.

Outside the halted arm sales, the Biden administration has approved two other arms sale deals to Taiwan in 2022. The most recent being a $95 million package including equipment and services to maintain the Patriot missile defense system the US exported to the island. Chinese Defense Ministry had responded with a strong opposition. 

Undoubtedly, it is almost impossible for the US to cancel an arms sale to Taiwan island only due to pressure from the Chinese mainland, Xin said, "but as of today, we might not rush to exclude the possibility that this time the US seems to want to temporally send what it sees as a friendly signal to Chinese mainland and avoid pushing it to Russia's side."

Some analysts believe that canceling previous arm deals does not mean a longstanding halt in providing military hardware. In the future, it may mean selling Taiwan more expensive weapons as a show of "commitment."

Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times that the M109 howitzer artillery systems are neither urgently needed nor useful for Taiwan, and will not greatly contribute to the island's military upgrade.

Comparing to the abandoned M109 package, the expert said the Chinese mainland should be more alert over the "advanced alternatives," especially following US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's recent remarks that the Biden administration was determined to make sure that Taiwan authority "has all necessary means to defend itself."

The US may sell its M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (M270 MLRS) to Taiwan island, which would signal a significant provocation against China's central government, Song said. 

Song explained that the M270 MLRS has a range of up to 70 kilometers with artillery alone, and a maximum range of nearly 300km with army tactical operational missiles deployed. 

Considering that the 155mm M109A6 medium self-propelled howitzers have a range of only about 40 km, the M270 MLRS would pose a more serious threat to the mainland, analysts claimed. 

If the US can put forward a contract to sell M270 MLRS through cancelling the previous arms deal, it could increase its arms sale revenue in the Taiwan Straits, Song said.