The Trump administration has informally greenlit a potential major arms sale to Taiwan involving dozens of new F-16 fighter jets, according to administration officials and others familiar with the matter.
The decision comes amid heightened tensions with China as a trade war wages on and a crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong draws US criticism. The new weaponry – the largest US sale to Taiwan in several years – could further erode ties, since Beijing views the self-governing island as part of China.
Congress was notified informally of the potential sale on Thursday, according to a senior administration official and others familiar with the matter. It’s expected to be reviewed and approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Warning from China
The State Department stressed that no formal notification to Congress had taken place, something that must still occur before a sale is formally announced.
“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,” a State Department official told CNN.
On Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, said the United States’ arms sales to Taiwan undermine China’s sovereignty and core interests.
China “firmly opposes this,” Hua said, demanding that the US refrain from selling F-16V fighter jets and stop military contact with Taiwan.
“It must be stressed that the Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and security interests,” Hua said and added a warning. The “US will have to bear all the consequences” if it does not stop all arms sales, she said.
China is viewed as being much more hostile to this deal than any other US arms sale to Taiwan. The Obama administration avoided completing this particular sale of 66 F-16 jets, opting to upgrade existing Taiwanese jets instead.
Now, President Donald Trump is in the position of signing off on a move that will undoubtedly roil Beijing while he is engaged in trade negotiations with China — and working to formulate a response to the crisis in Hong Kong.
Because of the uncertainty surrounding the current situation with China, officials cautioned the deal could still be pulled back.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio praised the administration for the sale and urged fellow lawmakers on the foreign relations committees to approve the “important” sale.
“As the Chinese government and Communist Party seeks to extend its authoritarian reach in the region, it is critical that the United States continue to enhance our strategic relationship with our democratic partner Taiwan through regular and consistent support,” Rubio said. “This move is an important step in support of Taiwan’s self-defense efforts, and I urge the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee to quickly advance this critical arms sale.”
The Democratic chairman and the leading Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee issued a joint statement to express their support, saying that “the sale of F-16s to Taiwan sends a strong message about the US commitment to security and democracy in the Indo-Pacific.”
As China “steps up its military aggression in the region, we need to do all we can to support our friends around the world,” Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York and Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas said, adding that they “have every confidence that it will be supported on a bipartisan and bicameral basis.”
The fighter jets are seen as particularly irksome to Beijing as it would give Taipei an enhanced capability to potentially conduct military operations in the Taiwan Strait, the narrow waterway that separates China from Taiwan.
While the US has long provided arms to Taiwan as part of the 40-year-old Taiwan Relations Act, Beijing has frequently chafed at those sales, protesting them as a violation of China’s sovereignty despite the Chinese Communist Party having never governed the island.
Last month, the Trump administration approved selling 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks and portable Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Taiwan, an arms package valued at $2.2 billion.
Both types of equipment had been requested by Taiwan, which has moved to boost its defense spending as it faces increasing pressure from Beijing in the form of ramped up military drills and efforts to strip Taipei of its remaining diplomatic allies.
A Pentagon report in May warned that Taiwan’s traditional military advantages over Beijing in the event of a cross-strait conflict were eroding in the face of China’s military modernization efforts.
Since 2010, the US has announced more than $15 billion in arms sales to Taiwan.
CNN’s Haley Byrd in Washington and AJ Davis in Atlanta contributed to this report