Taiwan’s years-long efforts to buy new F-16 jets to ramp up defense is now expected to bear fruit, as a squadron of the fighters in the series’ latest V configuration may start reinforcing the island’s military as soon as next year.

The Trump administration will press ahead and see through the F-16 deal, despite angering Beijing, according to a report by the Washington-based Foreign Policy this week. The magazine cited two unidentified sources as saying the sale of as many as 66 F-16V jets would go to Congress before its summer recess next month.

Taiwan’s request must still be converted into a formal proposal by the Pentagon and State Department, before Congress can officially debate it during a 30-day period.

Few lawmakers are expected to demur as the issue of selling Taiwan defensive arms has increasingly had bipartisan support. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act obligates the US government to help the self-governed island maintain sufficient capabilities to defend itself.

Taiwan broached the purchase years ago but only formally couriered its Letter of Request this February, one month after Chinese President Xi Jinping asserted that any secessionist bids could trigger a military move by the People’s Liberation Army.

Beijing sees Taiwan as a wayward province that must be brought back under its control to end the split of Chinese territory caused by China’s civil war in 1949.

Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to realize China's reunification and broached the "one country, two systems" framework as a solution for Taiwan during a key speech in early January. Photo: Twitter via AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to take control of Taiwan in a key speech in early January. Photo: Twitter

In recent years, Beijing’s frenetic military build-up and threats toward Taiwan under Xi has helped the island make a stronger case for material support, despite the fact that President Trump’s predecessors Barack Obama and George W Bush both rejected requests from Taipei for F-16s.

But, Taiwan’s negotiations with the Pentagon and planemaker Lockheed Martin over price and configuration of the planes meant the deal has taken longer than expected to materialize.

Impact on trade?

It is also believed that Washington is trying to insulate the sale from the resumed trade talks, even though ties are likely to be strained further if the deal – the largest in decades – goes through. This is something that Beijing has allegedly warned the US about.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson with Taiwan’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that the request was still being reviewed by the US and the island had been lobbying US lawmakers, but the defense ministry declined to comment.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen will set her foot on US soil again this month, the third time since taking office in 2016. She will spend a total of four nights in US stopovers on the way to visit Taiwan’s allies in the Caribbean, and she may also make a push for the F-16 purchase when meeting US officials, congressmen and defense contractors.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen attends a banquet in Hawaii in March during a stop in the US state. Photo: Handout
A file photo shows Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen addressing airmen in front of an F-16 fighter. Photo: Handout

But Washington’s quasi-diplomatic mission to the island, the American Institute in Taiwan, has chosen to mince its words, stressing merely that they would only announce a deal if one is ratified by Congress.

The F-16V, or Viper, is an update of the fourth-generation legacy fighter. The Taiwanese Air Force already has roughly 140 F-16 jets in service, procured in the early 1990s after approval by George HW Bush, and the entire fleet is now undergoing an upgrade to the newest standard.

New tanks, missiles for Taiwan 

Meanwhile, Washington announced another separate deal earlier this week, which would include US$2.2 billion worth of 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks, 250 portable Stinger anti-tank missile systems and other auxiliary military equipment, software and patches for Taiwan, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which stressed that the multibillion-dollar deal would not alter the “basic military balance in the region”.

The M1 Abrams tank is a highly mobile, heavily armoured main-battle tank for modern ground warfare. Photo: WikiMedia

US lawmakers, likewise, have 30 days to object to the sale but are unlikely to do so. The new tanks will help the modernization of the Taiwanese army’s main battle tank fleet and the missiles will help improve the latter’s defensive capability.

While acknowledging the Pentagon’s approval, Taiwan’s foreign ministry noted in a statement that the island stood on the frontline of China’s ambitious expansion and faced enormous threats and pressure from Beijing.

In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Tuesday that Taiwan could not be separated from China, and that Beijing’s determination to maintain its territorial integrity should not be underestimated, adding that the US should respect the one-China principle it agreed to.

“The US should immediately withdraw the arms sales plan and stop military exchanges [with Taiwan], avoiding further damages to China-US relations and the stability of the Taiwan Strait,” he said.

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