Trump aides back selling F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan, sources say

An F-16 fighter jet launches flares during a drill above the sea near the Suao navy harbour in Yilan, Taiwan, on April 13, 2018.
An F-16 fighter jet launches flares during a drill above the sea near the Suao navy harbour in Yilan, Taiwan, on April 13, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (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, a policy reversal likely to provoke China's ire amid the trade dispute between Washington and Beijing.

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 Defence and State Departments, and then Congress would have 30 days to decide whether to block the sale.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing didn't immediately respond on Friday (March 22) to a faxed request for comment.

The US, wary of antagonising 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.

Mr Trump has chosen a more assertive approach at a time when the administration is locked in difficult negotiations with China 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 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 people said also includes tanks. The Taiwanese defence ministry said in a statement that it hadn't yet "received an official response from the US" 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 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 US swatted down Taiwan's earlier request for Lockheed's more modern F-35.

The US 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. Ms 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 defence budget more than 20 times larger and commands a much bigger fleet increasingly made up of next-generation fighter jets.

Mr 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, Mr Trump shattered precedent and infuriated China by taking a call from Taiwan's president, Ms 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.

Mr Trump has since affirmed his support for the US' 40-year-old policy approach towards the island. While the US "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".