The administration of US President Donald Trump has given tacit approval to Taiwan’s request to buy more than 60 F-16 Fighting Falcons, people familiar with the matter said.
Trump’s advisers encouraged Taiwan to submit a formal request for the jets, built by Lockheed Martin, which it did this month, said the people, who asked not be identified discussing internal discussions.
Any such request would need to be converted into a formal proposal by the US departments of defense and state, and then US Congress would have 30 days to decide whether to block the sale.
The administration of then-US president Barack Obama in 2011 rejected a similar Taiwanese request over concern about antagonizing China.
However, Trump has chosen a more aggressive approach at a time when his administration is locked in difficult negotiations with China over trade.
It is unclear whether a potential F-16 sale could become a bargaining chip in those discussions or is solely an outgrowth of the administration’s renewed focus on Taiwan, a long-time US ally that was once seen as a bulwark against Chinese expansion in the Asia-Pacific region.
The White House declined to comment on Taiwan’s request, which several of the people said also includes tanks.
In October last year, US Vice President Mike Pence assailed China for moves to chip away at Taiwan’s diplomatic presence overseas and its ramping up of pressure on private companies to refer to Taiwan as a province of China.
In announcing its request for the airplanes, Taiwan did not say how many jets it was seeking.
The request followed a lengthy back and forth with the administration after the US swatted down Taiwan’s earlier request for Lockheed’s more modern F-35 Lighting II.
The US Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, which oversees such weapons sales, declined to comment on the possibility of the weapons sales.
Even if a sale is approved by Congress and a contract is reached with Lockheed, the airplanes probably would not be going to Taiwan anytime soon.
Lockheed spokeswoman Carolyn Nelson said that the first F-16s to be built at a new facility in Greenville, South Carolina, would not roll off the production line until 2021, and those are committed to Bahrain.
The jets were previously built in Fort Worth, Texas.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton is a long-time supporter of Taiwan, and some advisers on the US National Security Council have urged a more aggressive posture, including sending more US warships through the Taiwan Strait.
As president-elect, Trump shattered precedent and infuriated China by taking a call from President Tsai-Ing-wen (蔡英文) and calling into question the US’ continuing commitment to the “one China” policy that underpinned the establishment of ties between Beijing and Washington under then-US president Richard Nixon.
Trump has since affirmed US support for “one China,” while also making clear that protecting Taiwan is a priority in his dealings with leaders in Beijing.
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