The United States is negotiating the sale of at least four sophisticated aerial drones to Taiwan for the first time, according to six US sources familiar with the negotiations, aircraft that can keep watch over huge swathes of sea and land.
The SeaGuardian surveillance drones have a range of 6,000 nautical miles (11,100 km), far greater than the 160-mile range of Taiwan's current fleet of drones, potentially giving the island greater capacity to peer into China, observing its air force, missiles and other facilities.
While the State Department tacitly authorized the sale of the unmanned aerial vehicles, two of the people said, it is not known whether the US officials have approved exporting the drones with weapons attached, one of them said.
The deal must be approved by members of Congress, who may receive formal notification as soon as next month, two of the people said. Congress could block a final agreement.
Such a sale would most likely anger China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory.
Republican and Democratic US senators introduced legislation on Thursday that would block the export, transfer or trade of many advanced drones to countries that are not close US allies. Sales would be allowed to NATO members, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan and Israel.
A deal with Taiwan would be the first drone sale after President Donald Trump's administration moved ahead with its plan to sell more drones to more countries by reinterpreting an international arms control agreement called the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).
Taiwan's Defense Ministry declined to comment.
While Taiwan's military is well-trained and well-equipped with mostly US-made hardware, China has a huge numerical advantage and is adding advanced equipment of its own, including stealthy fighters, anti-satellite missiles and aircraft carriers.
Taiwan submitted its request to buy armed drones early this year, one of the people familiar with the talks said. The United States last week sent Taiwan the pricing and availability data for the deal, a key step that denotes official approval to advance the sale. It is, however, non-binding and could be reversed.
A deal for the four drones, ground stations, spares, training and support could be worth around $600 million using previous sales as a guide. There could also be options for additional units in the future, one of the people said.
The island is bolstering its defenses in the face of what it sees as increasingly threatening moves by Beijing, such as regular Chinese air force and naval exercises near Taiwan
Taiwan unveiled its largest defense spending increase in more than a decade last year. President Tsai Ing-wen has made defense modernization a priority, including building new submarines and upgrading Taiwan's F-16 fighter fleet.
Relations between Beijing and Washington - already at their lowest point in decades over accusations of spying, a trade war, the coronavirus and Hong Kong - could fray more if the deal gets the final go-ahead from US officials. The Pentagon has said arms sales to Taiwan will continue, and the Trump administration has kept a steady pace of Navy warships passing through the Taiwan Strait.
China has never renounced the use of force to bring the democratic island under its control. Beijing has denounced the Trump administration's increased support for Taiwan.
China's sophisticated air defenses could likely shoot down a handful of drones, according to Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, a Washington think tank. But she still expects "China to scream about even the smallest arms sale that the US makes to Taiwan because any sale challenges the 'One China' principle."
"They get particularly agitated if they think it's an offensive capability," she said, adding that she expected the Trump administration to be less cautious than its predecessors.
"As a matter of policy we do not comment on or confirm proposed defense sales or transfers until they have been formally notified to Congress," a State Department spokesman said.
ONLY FOR FEW US ALLIES
The US has been eager to sell Taiwan tanks and fighter jets, but the deal to sell drones would be notable since only a few close allies - including Britain, Italy, Australia, Japan and South Korea - have been allowed to purchase the largest US-made drones.
Currently, the Taiwanese government has a fleet of 26 Albatross drones made by Taiwan's National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, a quasi-defense ministry research agency, that can fly 160 nautical miles (300 km), or 80 before returning to base, according to records kept by the Bard Center for the Study of the Drone.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc's SeaGuardian has an airframe that can handle carrying weapons - but only if contractually allowed by the US government.
The United States has sold France unarmed MQ-9 Reapers which are similar to SeaGuardians, and later here gave permission to arm them.
Last year, the United States approved a potential sale to Taiwan of 108 General Dynamics Corp M1A2 Abrams tanks worth around $2 billion as well as anti-tank and anti-aircraft munitions. A separate sale of 66 Lockheed Martin-made fighter jets also made it through the State Department's process.
In recent weeks, China said it will sanction Lockheed Martin Co for involvement in the latest US arms sale to Taiwan.