China Protests Possible Trump Move to Sell F-16s to Taiwan
(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration has given tacit approval to Taiwan’s request to buy more than 60 F-16 fighter jets, according to people familiar with the matter, prompting a fresh protest from China amid its trade dispute with the U.S.
President Donald Trump’s advisers encouraged Taiwan to submit a formal request for the jets, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., which it did this month, according to the people, who asked not be identified discussing internal discussions. Any such request would need to be converted into a formal proposal by the Defense and State Departments, and then Congress would have 30 days to decide whether to block the sale.
“China’s position to firmly oppose arms sales to Taiwan is consistent and clear,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing Friday in Beijing. “We have made stern representations to the U.S. We have urged the U.S. to fully recognize the sensitivity of this issue and the harm it will cause.”
The U.S., wary of antagonizing China, hasn’t sold advanced fighter jets since then-President George H.W. Bush announced the sale of 150 F-16s to Taiwan in 1992. The Obama administration rejected a similar Taiwanese request for new jets, agreeing in 2011 to upgrade the island’s existing fleet.
Trump has chosen a more assertive approach at a time when the administration is locked in difficult negotiations with Chinese President Xi Jinping over trade. He’s been prodded on by China hawks in Congress, who have passed legislation urging greater diplomatic and military ties with the democratically run island.
It’s unclear whether a potential F-16 sale could become a bargaining chip in those talks or is solely an outgrowth of the administration’s renewed focus on Taiwan, a U.S. ally long seen as a bulwark against Chinese expansion in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. has stepped up naval patrols through the Taiwan Strait and past Chinese military outposts in the disputed South China Sea in recent months, drawing protests from Beijing.
Mark Harrison, an adjunct director of Australian National University’s Australian Centre on China in the World, said China would calibrate its response to take account for a range of factors, including trade talks and local politics in Taipei. Xi might decide he needs to draw a firm line against perceived U.S. interference on Taiwan.
“The intensity of politics and policy change in the Xi era has been reflected in recent instances of PRC government officials acting with relatively greater belligerence in sensitive policy areas,” Harrison said, referring to China’s formal name. “Taipei and Washington will no doubt be attentive to any unpredictable responses from Beijing to the proposed arms sale.”
The White House declined to comment on Taiwan’s F-16 request, which several of the people said also includes tanks. The Taiwanese defense ministry said in a statement that it hadn’t yet “received an official response from the U.S.” to its request.
In October, Vice President Mike Pence assailed China for moves to chip away at Taiwan’s diplomatic presence overseas, and its ramping up of pressure on private companies to refer to Taiwan as a province of China. The government in Beijing considers the island’s fate a “core interest” -- and respect for its concerns as a prerequisite for maintaining diplomatic ties.
In announcing its request for the planes, Taiwan didn’t say how many jets it was seeking. The request followed a lengthy back-and forth with the administration after the U.S. swatted down Taiwan’s earlier request for Lockheed’s more modern F-35.
The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, which oversees such weapons sales, declined to comment on the possibility of the weapons sales.
Even if a sale was approved by Congress and a contract was reached with Lockheed, the planes probably wouldn’t be going to Taiwan anytime soon. Carolyn Nelson, a Lockheed spokeswoman, said the first F-16s to be built at a new facility in Greenville, South Carolina, won’t roll off the production line until 2021, and those are committed to Bahrain. The jets were previously built in Fort Worth, Texas.
Taiwan’s air force is already vastly outmatched by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, which is backed by a defense budget more than 20 times larger and commands a much bigger fleet increasingly made up of next-generation fighter jets. But Taiwan’s bottom-line concern may having enough capacity to deter any Chinese attack until U.S.-backed reinforcements arrive.
John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, is a longtime supporter of Taiwan, and some advisers on the National Security Council have urged a more aggressive posture.
As president-elect, Trump shattered precedent and infuriated China by taking a call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, and calling into question America’s continuing commitment to the “one-China policy” that underpinned the Nixon era rapprochement between Beijing and Washington.
Trump has since affirmed his support for the U.S.’s 40-year-old policy approach toward the island. While the U.S. “acknowledges the Chinese position that there is, but one China and Taiwan is part of China,” it is also required under a 1979 law to provide the island “with arms of a defensive character.”
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