Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen wants to speed up and complete the sale of 66 F-16 fighter jets from the US by the end of this year so she can capitalize on the sale and use the deal in her campaign to get re-elected in January next year.

Tsai also hopes that Taiwan will be invited to join the US-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises, dubbed the world’s largest biennial naval drill, that takes place next summer.

Tsai wants her government to follow up swiftly once the US Congressional Foreign Relations Committee completes its review of the sale of the F-16s – which was endorsed by the US State Department last month – by the end of September, according to a Bloomberg report on Sunday citing US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Rene Cooper.

Taiwan aims to submit a formal Letter of Offer and Acceptance straight after the expected congressional approval, which would then be converted into a signed contract with details of delivery and logistics.

The entire US$8 billion package, other than the F-16 fighters from Lockheed Martin in their latest V configuration, also includes munitions, defensive electronics and a top-of-the-line fire-control radar that will enable precision-guided missiles and bombs to be launched from great distances.

A file photo shows Tsai sitting in the cockpit of an F-16V jet, where she was briefed on the jet’s features. Photo: Handout

Earlier this month, Taiwan’s Executive Yuan appropriated NT$250 billion (US$8 billion) for the landmark deal, unseen since 1992 when then-US president George HW Bush agreed to then-Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui’s request and sold 150 agile, fourth-generation warplanes to the self-governed island.

However, Taiwan’s incumbent leader Tsai is unlikely to welcome the first F-16Vs to join the island’s air force as commander-in-chief, even if she gets re-elected next year, as it normally takes 36 to 39 months for the first aircraft to be delivered after a contract is signed, Lockheed data showed.

But she can still take the credit for the breakthrough in Taiwan’s defense cooperation with its unofficial ally when the deal does come to pass.

Meanwhile Wang Ting-yu, convener of the Legislative Yuan’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, also said in Washington during the past weekend that the US should invite Taiwan to participate in multinational drills in the Pacific.

Wang met with some US Congressmen who sit on the armed forces, foreign affairs and intelligence committees in the House and Senate and during the meetings conveyed Tsai’s hopes of joining the US-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises, often called the world’s largest biennial naval drill, that takes place next summer.

Wang told Taiwanese papers that US lawmakers and aides agreed that an invitation could be possible, possibly inviting the island to send observers or even a small squad of seamen and marines to join RIMPAC.

On top of the Taiwan Travel Act that encourages exchanges and visits by senior officials from both sides, the US National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, signed by Donald Trump in August last year, also contains a clause requiring the US to boost Taiwan’s military by inviting the island to join US-led military exercises.

The flags of China and the US wave above helm of China’s guided-missile destroyer Xi’an while the ship was docked at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii on July 8, 2016, for the Rim of the Pacific exercise that year. Photo: Stars and Stripes

The Pentagon reportedly intended to invite Taiwan to participate in RIMPAC in 2016, but faced firm objections from Beijing and threats to pull out of the exercises.

However, Taiwanese soldiers may be called up for the war games next year, when the People’s Liberation Army is excluded, just as Beijing was booted out in 2018 in protest at its militarization of the South China Sea.

Deal on consular protection

While the F-16 sale is progressing smoothly, Taiwan also achieved a milestone in its ties with the US with the signing of a long-waited memorandum on mutual consular protection last Friday.

Taiwan’s representative office in Washington and the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s de-facto embassy, signed an MOU in the US capital to facilitate consular assistance and to institutionalize consular functions for better protection of the rights and welfare of Taiwanese and Americans in each country.

Under the new agreement, when a Taiwanese is arrested in the US, American law enforcement authorities will immediately inform the closest Taiwan representative offices and arrange a visit by staffers to offer assistance. Based on the principle of reciprocity, the consular notification would also apply to US citizens in Taiwan.

Taiwan is the only region not recognized as a sovereign state that is included in Washington’s Visa Waiver Program, which allows Taiwanese passport holders to travel to the US for tourism, business or transit for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa beforehand.

The program covers most of US’s key allies such as the UK, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Australia etc, and Taiwan is the only place in the Greater China region to have been accorded the preferential treatment.

Read more: Taiwan secures bargain price for F-16Vs