Taiwan unveiled the latest weaponry from its arms industry on Thursday, including a new subsonic jet trainer aircraft and a drone that its designers say can lock on to radar signals and destroy ground stations or missile launchers in a “suicide” attack.
The Jian Hsiang, or Flying Sword, drone was one of 81 items of locally made military equipment to make their debut at the three-day Taipei Aerospace and Defence Technology Exhibition.
Taipei has increased its defence spending in the face of a growing military threat from Beijing and has called on the United States to sell it more arms.
Last month, the US State Department approved the sale of an arms package worth US$2.2 billion that included 108 Abrams tanks and 250 Stinger shoulder-launched missiles to Taiwan. Beijing – which considers the island to be a wayward province to be returned to the mainland’s fold, by force if necessary – has said it will sanction the US companies involved.
Addressing the expo, Brent Christensen, director of the American Institute in Taiwan and the US’ top representative on the self-ruled island, said Washington expected Taipei to continue with defence spending increases.
“These investments by Taiwan are commendable, as is Taiwan’s ongoing commitment to increase the defence budget annually to ensure that its spending is sufficient to provide for its own self-defence needs,” he said. “And we anticipate that these figures will continue to grow commensurate with the threats Taiwan faces.”
Chi Li-pin, aerospace director of the National Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology, the development arm of Taiwan’s armaments bureau, refused to give details of the Jian Hsang’s range or loiter phase – the time the drone can spend over a target. But he said it could reach the mainland and Beijing’s Russian-built S-400 missile systems, should any cross-strait conflict break out.
“Rather than holding a separate high-explosive warhead, the drone itself is the main munition once it finds its target and sets off its self-destruction,” he said.
Chi said the prototype of the drone – which is also known as a “loitering munition” – was completed and a six-year programme to build them for Taiwan’s air force was expected to begin soon.
He declined to reveal the budget for the drones, but earlier this year, Taipei approved the thawing of a frozen budget of NT$80 billion (US$2.6 billion) related to the Jian Hsang project.
The expo also introduced big-ticket equipment such as the Cloud Leopard M2 armoured personnel carrier; the latest version of the Teng Yun medium-altitude, long-endurance surveillance drone; a scale model of Taiwan’s yet-to-be-named advanced jet trainer; the Tien-Kung III surface-to-air missile; and the Hsiung Feng III sea and mobile-launched supersonic missile.
Taiwanese government records showed the latest version of the Teng Yun was developed in 2015 and budgeted by the military at NT$3.45 billion between 2018 and 2021.
The trainer was expected to go into production by the end of September and the first plane was expected to join the air force by June 2020, the institute said.
Leaders attending the annual Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) this week will be hosted by Tuvalu – one of just 17 diplomatic allies that Taiwan has around the world.
The Pacific region is home to six of these states: along with Tuvalu, those include Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and the Solomon Islands.
However, in June the Solomon Islands launched a task force on reconsidering its recognition of Taiwan, which could open the door for others in the region to follow suit.
Despite divisions on recognising Taiwan, analysts believe that the leaders gathered in Tuvalu this week are more likely to focus on issues which unite them, such as the pressing threat of climate change.
Observers say that Australia’s reluctance to take a more proactive stance on fighting climate change could open the door for China to gain more influence in the region — though Beijing has not won hearts at previous PIF meetings.
China’s delegation abruptly walked out of talks during last year’s forum in Nauru – a move which analysts say upset Nauru’s president and did nothing to endear Beijing to other Pacific leaders.
But with China’s spending in the region outpaced only by Australia, analysts say the gloves are off in the fight to pick off Taiwan’s allies, and a change in Pacific attitudes towards China may be only a matter of time.
China’s aid to its diplomatic partners in the Pacific has soared in recent years, providing it with “more leverage against traditional regional powers”, Denghua Zhang, a research fellow at Australia National University, said in an article published by Hong Kong University’s Asia Global Institute.
The Lowy Institute in Sydney estimates that since 2006, mainland China has spent nearly US$1.8 billion in the region - about eight times as much as Taiwan’s US$224 million.
Experts say Beijing’s economic engagement in the Pacific is driven both by demand for natural resources and by an interest in curbing Taipei’s influence.
China has demonstrated the benefits of switching allegiance. President Xi Jinping visited Papua New Guinea during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in November and proposed US$4 billion in funding for much-needed road construction there.
China’s trade volume with the region in 2017 totalled more than US$8 billion. Recent visits by the leaders of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau – which maintain defence allegiance with the US – to Beijing have been marked by extensive high-level protocol and meetings with China’s top decision makers.
Beijing and Taipei have abandoned an unofficial truce over poaching each other’s allies since the election of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ing-wen in 2016.
Many of Taiwan’s allies will take some persuading to abandon it, analysts say. Though mainland China spends more than Taiwan in the region, support for Taiwan also comes with approval from the United States.
Tess Newton Cain, a principal at TNC Pacific Consulting, said that Taiwan’s Pacific allies want to be assured they can get the infrastructure investment they need without changing their allegiance. To that end, American, Australian and Japanese delegations have increased their interest in helping Pacific states meet these goals.
As the Solomon Islands is the largest and most influential Pacific nation to recognise Taiwan, it would be a serious blow if it changes its mind, analysts say.
China is already the Solomon Islands’ largest trading partner, receiving 65 per cent of its exports.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s task force on reconsidering recognition of Taiwan will visit Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu – all of which have formal ties with China. Sogavare was previously removed from office over charges that he accepted bribes to award a contract to Chinese tech giant Huawei for a fibre-optic cable from Sydney to the Solomons.
There’s no upside for the issue of diplomatic recognition to come up at the PIF this week, said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands programme at the Lowy Institute.
The assembled leaders will discuss the cause of West Papua, a province in western Indonesia seeking sovereignty. Vanuatu has long championed the cause of West Papua and analysts suggest that changes in leadership in Fiji and Papua New Guinea may bring more support to the cause than before.
West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda is expected to attend, but has not yet arrived in Tuvalu as part of Vanuatu’s delegation.
“They're not calling for more money on this issue,” said Newton Cain. “They’re calling for moral and political solidarity around what seems to be an existential threat.”
Canberra’s lack of action on climate change makes it harder for increased attention to the region from “big brother” Australia to seem genuine, said Pryke. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s attendance shows his commitment to the forum, despite having little capacity to change Australia’s climate policy position, Pryke added.
“If our friend Australia does not show them any regard, we cannot be partner with that thinking,” said Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga to The Guardian on Sunday.
“I certainly hope we do not come to that juncture to say we cannot go on talking about partnerships … while you keep pouring your coal emissions into the atmosphere that is killing my people and drowning my people into the water.”
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