In a move that drew Beijing’s condemnation, the U.S. approved the sale of four used warships to Taiwan. A statement released by the White House on Thursday noted that U.S. President Barack Obama signed legislation formally authorizing the sale of four Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigates. The legislation was long-expected. The U.S. House of Representatives initially approved the sale in April 2014, ahead of Obama’s trip to Asia. The same House bill that approved the sale also reaffirmed the United States Congress’ commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act, which saw its 35th anniversary this year.
The four Perry-class frigates in question are the USS Taylor, USS Gary, USS Carr, and USS Elrod. All four vessels were commissioned in 1984 and 1985, and have the ability to support sophisticated surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missile systems. The sale was approved under a U.S. excess defense article (EDA) reallocation program.
By all measures, the sale will do little to significantly tilt the military balance across the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese military remains stronger in both sheer numbers and capabilities. Despite this reality, Chinese authorities condemned the sale, noting that it “blatantly interferes in China’s domestic affairs and undermines China’s sovereignty and security interests.” China reacts similarly to all arms sales by the United States to Taiwan, arguing that the U.S. is effectively interfering in a domestic matter and making the eventual reunification process — which Beijing sees as inevitable — more difficult. China reacted similarly in April when the House passed HR 3470 authorizing the sale: “The U.S. side ignored China’s strong opposition, and insisted on passing the bill pushing weapons sales to Taiwan,” it said. Back then, Beijing also added that the sale “doubtless will seriously interfere in and damage the development of Sino-U.S. military ties and the peaceful development of cross-strait relations.”
Critics, including Flashpoints’ own J. Michael Cole, have noted that the four frigates may ultimately represent a poor bargain for Taiwan. Taipei, which faces major budgetary constraints when it comes to acquiring military hardware, can hardly afford to make suboptimal purchases, yet it seems to have done so with these frigates. As Cole wrote in April following the passage of HR 3470, the cost of the frigates, before any upgrades or maintenance, is 1/57th of Taiwan’s entire annual defense budget. As Cole further correctly pointed out, China’s artillery and missile capabilities in the Taiwan Strait means that in any armed altercation, the survivability of Taiwanese surface ships is relatively low. While the Taiwanese Navy does field ships with a greater overall tonnage than the Perry-class, the marginal benefit of these new frigates seems to be quite low overall.