Beijing has responded angrily to talk of sales by the US of more than 60 Lockheed Martin F-16V jets to Taiwan, even though the fourth-generation warplanes, whose original model entered service 40 years ago, will hardly trouble China’s more advanced J-20 fighters.

Still, Beijing did not mince words, accusing Washington of “emboldening the separatists forces” on the self-governing island that it regards as a wayward province.

Taiwan has long sought the V-configuration F-16 to replace its aging fleet and better equip itself to stave off any attempt by Beijing to annex the island by force. The F-16V features an active electronically scanned array radar, a new mission computer and electronic warfare suite, automated ground collision avoidance system, and various other cockpit improvements. The upgrade is widely thought to be long overdue, since the last time the US sold warplanes to Taiwan was in 1992, when the George H W Bush administration supplied 160 F-16A/Bs.

There have also been rumors that Taiwan initially opted for the much higher-spec Lockheed Martin F-35 – billed as American warplane design and manufacturing at its peak – only to be rebuffed by the Pentagon as its policy governing arms sales to the island has always been to maintain sufficient defense capabilities but not to help Taiwan to provoke or even launch offensives.

The consensus among observers is that the arrival of the new F-16 squadron in Taiwan might deal more of a political shock than a military blow to Beijing, as the dated American fighters will hardly tip the military balance against the increasingly powerful People’s Liberation Army, a much more modern force to be reckoned with.

Taiwan Air Force F-16 fighter flies alongside a Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force H-6K bomber that reportedly flew over the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan in a drill.Photo: Taiwan Defence Ministry via AFP
A file photo shows an F-16 fighter with the Taiwanese Air Force flying alongside a Chinese People’s Liberation Army H-6K bomber above the Taiwan Strait. Photo: Handout

But Beijing may still interpret the largest arms sale in 27 years as a paradigm shift in Washington’s policy toward its democratically run neighbor. Xi Jinping is further incensed by Donald Trump, whose earlier show of support for Taiwan included taking a direct phone call as president-elect from Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016, as well as signing the Taiwan Travel Act into law in March last year as a supplement to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

The US also sailed a warship through the Taiwan Strait and accommodated a stopover by President Tsai in Hawaii last week, at a time when Beijing and Washington are locked in a protracted trade war.

Tsai said in Hawaii that a fighter-jet deal would “enhance our capabilities to defend territory and airspace, strengthen morale and show to the world the US’s commitment to Taiwan’s security.”

Beijing spent 23 times as much as Taiwan on defense in 2017, up from double in 1997, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The new aircraft will help Taiwan respond to day-to-day incidents, such as interceptions of regular intrusions by the PLA, the latest of which occurred last weekend.

Taiwan has, since 2017, been in the process of upgrading its existing F-16s into the V configuration as part of the island’s tactics to boost advanced conventional and asymmetric capabilities to deter military moves by Beijing.