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WASHINGTON ― The Trump administration has informally green lit a potential major arms sale to Taiwan involving dozens of new Lockheed Martin F-16V fighter jets, according to official and Capitol Hill sources.
The move is part of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s larger drive to combine arms bought from the U.S with domestically developed training jets, submarines and other weapons technology. It’s also sure to infuriate China amid its tense trade dispute with the U.S. and controversial crackdown on Hong Kong protesters.
The State Department advanced the sale late yesterday for informal review and approval by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to Capitol Hill sources. From there, there is a mandatory 30-calendar-day formal review process before state can issue a letter of offer and acceptance to Taiwan for the sale.
“We are aware of media reports regarding a possible sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to Taiwan. The Department does not comment on proposed defense sales until they are formally notified to Congress,” one State Department official said.
The U.S. is Taiwan’s main supplier of defensive weapons, despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties. However Beijing considers self-governing Taiwan part of China, to be annexed by force if necessary―and it has objected to past U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
The F-16V is the most advanced version of the plane that already forms the backbone of Taiwan’s air forces. It is expected to use the F-16Vs to replace the Northrop F-5E/Fs that are being retired in the next couple of years. Taiwan was also hoping to be cleared to buy F-35s, particularly the STOVL F-35B but it seems they have accepted that approval for that will not be forthcoming and hence will settle for new-build F-16Vs instead.
The U.S. approved the sale of 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks and other equipment worth $2 billion in July.
The fighter jet sale had been in limbo for weeks as the White House directed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to hold off, Capitol Hill sources said. That fueled speculation Trump planned to use it as a bargaining chip in ongoing trade negotiations with China.
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Washington negotiated the sale with Taipei over several years, leaning on leaders the island nation to devote a significant part of its budget to purchase the fighter jets. Lawmakers were concerned a reversal by Trump who look bad for Tsai, whose government has proposed increasing the total national defense budget by 5.2 percent in 2020 and is running for reelection.
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, home to F-16 production line, cheered Trump for the move in a Twitter post Friday and pointed to China’s defense posture as a reason to approve the sale.
“With China building up its military to threaten us & our allies-and the People’s Liberation Army aiming thousands of missiles at Taiwan and deploying fighter aircrafts along the [Taiwanese Strait]-now more than ever it is critical that Taiwan has the support needed to defend itself,” Cruz’s post read.
Ahead of Congress’s summer recess, which began weeks ago, Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had urged the Trump administration to move forward.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, expressed sympathy for the White House’s full work load, but said, “This is a long-time relationship [with Taiwan], and we have certain obligations. And it’s the right thing to do.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., downplayed fears the sale would impact trade negotiations with Beijing and said it should go through as soon as possible. “We can’t allow that to dictate our foreign policy or dictate our policy toward Taiwan,” Rubio said.