The move is likely to anger Beijing, which claims the self-ruled island as its own territory with no right to sovereign relations.
The United States has approved military aid to Taiwan under a programme usually used to help sovereign states in a move likely to anger China, which claims the self-ruled democratic island as its own territory.
The Department of State informed Congress on Tuesday of the $80m package, which is modest in comparison with recent military sales to Taiwan but marks the first time Washington has provided assistance to Taipei under the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) programme, which generally involves grants or loans to sovereign countries.
The announcement is likely to heighten tensions with Beijing, which has not ruled out the use of force to take control of Taiwan.
The US and China have had formal diplomatic relations for 50 years, but Washington remains Taiwan’s biggest backer. Legislation also requires that it supply the island with the weapons necessary for its defence, but these have usually been done on a trade basis rather than as direct aid.
The State Department insisted that the first-ever aid under the FMF did not imply any recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty.
“Consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act and our longstanding One China policy, which has not changed, the United States makes available to Taiwan defence articles and services necessary to enable it to maintain a sufficient self-defence capability,” a State Department spokesperson said.
“The United States has an abiding interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, which is critical to regional and global security and prosperity.”
Taiwan’s defence ministry expressed gratitude. “The aid will help in regional peace and stability,” it said in a short statement.
Beijing has stepped up its military activities in and around Taiwan in recent years and sought to isolate the island diplomatically since Tsai Ing-wen, considered a “separatist” by China, was first elected president in 2016. The island is preparing for its next presidential election in January and Tsai’s deputy, William Lai, is currently leading the pack. Tsai and Lai both say the people of Taiwan should be the ones to determine their future.
The only other time the US has provided a non-nation-state with military assistance under FMF, according to officials, was to the African Union, an organisation of sovereign states based in Ethiopia.
The notification, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press news agency, did not specify what military equipment or systems would be paid for under FMF.
It said items that could be covered would include: air and coastal defence systems, armoured vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles, drones, ballistic missile and cyber defences, and advanced communications equipment. It added that protective gear, an array of small, medium and heavy weapons systems, ammunition, and armoured and infantry fighting vehicles could also be included.
In addition to equipment, FMF may also be used to support training for Taiwanese military forces.
The Reuters news agency cited a person familiar with the notice saying it would involve support to improve awareness at sea.
The assistance needs approval from Congress, which is virtually certain as lawmakers from both parties widely support Taiwan.
Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, welcomed the FMF being provided to Taiwan.
“These weapons will not only help Taiwan and protect other democracies in the region, but also strengthen the U.S. deterrence posture and ensure our national security from an increasingly aggressive CCP,” he said in a statement, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
China and the US have recently taken tentative steps to resume dialogue in the hopes of stabilising a relationship that has become increasingly turbulent, and Taiwan remains a clear point of friction.
China has carried out major military exercises three times in little more than a year in response to Taiwanese leaders’ interactions with politicians in the US.