The Trump administration is believed to have given “tacit approval” for Taiwan to purchase 66 F-16V  fighter jets from Lockheed Martin in what would be the biggest US arms sale to the island since 1992.

Bloomberg and Apple Daily Taiwan said that at the urging of senior figures in the administration, Taiwan had made a formal request to the Pentagon and the State Department for the F-16V, which is marketed by its manufacturer as the most advanced fourth generation fighter ever built.

Expected to cost US$13 billion, the package may also include missiles and tanks, and it will mark a  paradigm shift in Washington’s dealings with Taiwan, as hawks take center stage in the White House and  Congress following the enacting of the Taiwan Travel Act. The act supported more diplomatic exchanges and led to invitations by US lawmakers for President Tsai Ing-wen to address the Congress.

An arms shipment on this scale last occurred under former President George H W Bush, who approved the sale of 150 F-16s to Taiwan despite blistering criticism from the then-Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. Efforts to secure a similar deal in 2011 were scuppered by Barack Obama due to political sensitivities: he agreed only to help update the existing fighter fleet.

A Taiwanese pilot aboard an F-16 waves a Taiwan flag. Photo: YouTube

Reports suggest that Taiwan initially asked for the more advanced fifth generation F-35 fighter, which would have superior capabilities to the J-20, the ace fighter in service with the People’s Liberation Army. But Washington was wary of antagonizing Beijing too much by moving outside the accepted framework of allowing “weapons of a defensive character”.

It is 22 years since Taiwan’s first two F-16A/B aircraft were put into service, but its request for the less-than-ideal alternative still sparked a lengthy debate with the US. The first batch of F-16V fighters will probably not arrive until after 2021 due to a relocation of Lockheed’s plant and other logistical issues.

Taiwan is also midway through an upgrade of its existing 144 F-16A/Bs into the V configuration, a program that started in January 2017 and is expected to be completed by 2023.

News of the deal comes as Tsai embarks on visits to Palau, Nauru and the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific, with a stopover in Hawaii where she may meet senior US officials.

China has not yet responded to the shipment, which would affect the military balance in the region. There is speculation it may be used as bargaining chip in Washington’s negotiations with Beijing over trade.