Trump aides back sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan: Sources

WASHINGTON • The Trump administration has given tacit approval to Taiwan's request to buy more than 60 F-16 fighter jets, according to sources, prompting a fresh protest from China amid its trade dispute with the United States.

President Donald Trump's advisers encouraged Taiwan to submit a formal request for the jets - built by Lockheed Martin - which it did this month, said the sources, who asked not to be identified.

Any such request would need to be converted into a formal proposal by the Defence 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 said yesterday.

"We have made stern representations to the US. We have urged the US to fully recognise the sensitivity of this issue and the harm it will cause."

The US, wary of antagonising China, has not 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.

Mr 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 has been prodded on by China hawks in Congress, who have passed legislation urging greater diplomatic and military ties with the democratically run island.

It is 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 US ally long seen as a bulwark against Chinese expansion in the Asia-Pacific region.

The US 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.

The White House declined to comment on Taiwan's F-16 request, which several of the sources said also includes tanks.

Taiwan's Defence Ministry said in a statement that it had not yet "received an official response from the US" to its request.

In announcing its request for the planes, Taiwan did not say how many jets it was seeking.

The request followed a lengthy back-and forth with the administration after the US swatted down Taiwan's earlier request for Lockheed's more modern F-35.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2019, with the headline 'Trump aides back sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan: Sources'. Print Edition | Subscribe