U.S. officials are reportedly negotiating the sale of at least four large sophisticated aerial drones to Taiwan in a precedent-breaking purchase that is all but set to add to heightened tensions with China, which claims Taiwan as its territory.
The purchase includes SeaGuardian surveillance drones that can travel 6,000 nautical miles, Reuters reported, citing six sources familiar with the deal. Taiwan’s current drones max out at a 160-mile range.
If the sale is authorized by Congress, it would be the first drone sale under the Trump administration’s plan to sell more of the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), citing a reinterpretation of the Missile Technology Control Regime, an informal missile proliferation agreement between 35 nations designed to limit the spread of weapons.
Late last month, the Trump administration said it was relaxing rules governing the export of armed drones, making it easier for American companies to sell the military drones in a bid to compete with China’s growing foothold in the market.
Under the change, the sale of armed drones with a “maximum airspeed less than 800 kilometers per hour” can be authorized. The new standard means that American drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper, which is similar to the SeaGuardian, can now be sold to allies and partners much more easily.
But the decision to sell to Taiwan would be particularly provocative for Beijing.
It remains unclear whether administration officials have given the green light to export the drones with weapons attached to the vehicles. Taiwan’s current weapons arsenal largely comprises American-made hardware.
The initial request to purchase the drones was submitted early this year and last week, U.S. officials sent pricing and availability information to Taiwan, symbolizing an important step in advancing the sale.
The entire sale of four drones, ground stations, spares, training information and support personnel is estimated to be worth roughly $600 million, the news agency said, citing previous sales.
The sale is the latest step in a sharp escalation of tensions between the U.S. and China, which has included the shuttering of diplomatic consulates, trade tariffs, the expulsion of journalists, and U.S. sanctions over Chinese policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang province.
China is not a member of the MTCR pact and has been exporting its drones to customers around the world.
The report of the possible drone sale comes days before Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II is expected to travel to Taiwan, marking the highest-level U.S. official visit to the island since 1979.
Some arms control experts have criticized the U.S. move to reinterpret the pact, but administration officials have maintained that China’s rapidly growing drone export policy necessitated a change in American policy.
Although the U.S. does not officially recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation, Washington maintains unofficial ties with the island and is a crucial weapons provider and defense ally. China has historically reacted with a special intensity to signs that the U.S. was bolstering the independence of Taiwan.
Last month, China announced sanctions on U.S. weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin over the sale of $620 million worth of its Patriot Surface-to-Air missiles.
Chinese officials demanded the U.S. to “stop selling arms to Taiwan and cut its military ties to Taiwan, so it won’t do further harm to bilateral relations between China and the United States.”
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