Trump’s Fighter Jet Sale to Taiwan Advances Despite China’s Protests

The news comes as Washington and Beijing agree to resume trade talks.

A fleet of Taiwan's F-16 fighter jets fly in formation over the eastern Hualien air base, Aug. 17, 2004.
A fleet of Taiwan's F-16 fighter jets fly in formation over the eastern Hualien air base, Aug. 17, 2004. PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration’s plan to sell more than 60 new F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan is now moving forward after longer-than-anticipated negotiations, paving the way for a deal that is sure to prompt fresh protests from China only days after Washington and Beijing agreed to restart trade talks.

Taiwan formally submitted a request for 66 “Block 70” F-16 jets, the newest version of Lockheed Martin’s legacy fighter, earlier this year, but the deal took longer than expected to hammer out due to negotiations over price and configuration of the aircraft, two officials told Foreign Policy.

The goal is to move the sale to the next step by the August congressional recess, according to one administration official. However, it is not yet a done deal. The request must be converted into a formal proposal by the Defense and State Departments, and then formally notified to Congress. Lawmakers would then have 30 days to block the sale.

Taiwan already has roughly 140 older “Block 20” F-16 jets that are currently being upgraded to the newest standard. However, China has long said the U.S. selling new F-16s to Taiwan would be a red line.

“China’s position to firmly oppose arms sales to Taiwan is consistent and clear,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in March, after reports emerged that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration had given tacit approval for the sale. “We have made stern representations to the U.S. We have urged the U.S. to fully recognize the sensitivity of this issue and the harm it will cause.”

If the deal does indeed move ahead, it is sure to anger Beijing at a particularly delicate time for U.S.-China relations. The two nations recently agreed to resume trade talks amid a wide-ranging trade dispute that has roiled global markets. The agreement came as Trump continued to ease restrictions on China, reportedly removing eight companies from the Commerce Department’s blacklist and taking steps to allow telecommunications giant Huawei to purchase U.S. technology

But the pause in tensions may be only temporary. The United States still has many concerns about China’s subversive economic practices, stealing of U.S. technology, ongoing military buildup, and island-building campaign in the South China Sea.

Taiwan has long been a flash point for China, which does not recognize the island as an independent nation. Beijing has opposed any attempt by Taiwan to declare independence since 1949, when the two split after Mao Zedong’s Communists won China’s civil war. The United States does not recognize Taiwan, but the Taiwan Relations Act obligates the U.S. government to help the island nation maintain self-defense capabilities. The United States has long sold weapons to Taiwan.

The Trump administration recently proposed a separate arms sale to Taipei, including more than $2 billion worth of Abrams tanks, portable antitank missile systems, and other military equipment. If approved, the sale would mark one of the largest to Taiwan in recent years by the United States.

But the new F-16 sale, which would be valued at a much higher price point, would be significantly more provocative. Previous administrations, including former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, rejected Taiwan’s request to buy new F-16s, likely so as not to provoke Beijing.

But the Trump administration has recently become more concerned that an attack by China on Taiwan might come sooner rather than later. In January, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned that any independence efforts by Taiwan could be met by armed force, implicitly threatening the United States if it tried to intervene.

“There is a consensus that’s almost bipartisan in Washington that it’s time to be a bit more assertive against China,” Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, told Foreign Policy in March. “This is the part where fighters are geopolitics with wings.”

A State Department official said: “As a matter of policy, we do not comment or confirm proposed defense sales until they are formally notified to Congress.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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