The Trump administration is moving ahead with for an $8 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan despite strong objections from China, a U.S. official and others familiar with the deal said Thursday.
The administration notified Congress late Thursday that it would submit the package for informal review, said the people familiar with the sale. It would be the largest and most significant sale of weaponry to the self-governing island in years, and comes amid stalled trade talks and a deteriorating relationship with China.
Lawmakers from both parties had questioned whether the White House would scuttle the sale to soften the ground for a U.S.-China trade deal, or otherwise use the fighter jets as a bargaining chip in deadlocked negotiations.
The State Department told Congress to expect the arms package to be informally submitted to them by Friday evening, according to a U.S. official and another person familiar with the matter.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee would review the package. They are not expected to raise objections.
The people familiar with the proposed sale requests anonymity to discuss a sensitive pending deal. Neither the State Department nor the White House immediately responded to requests for comment.
China claims Taiwan as a breakaway province, and last month accused the United States of a “vain plot” to arm the island. The Trump administration approved more than $2 billion in lower-level arms sales to Taiwan last month, and allowed Taiwan’s leader to visit New York.
Approval of the latest sale also comes amid pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous part of China, and fears that China could launch a military crackdown there. Such a crackdown could embolden Beijing also to confront Taiwan, which is backed by the United States.
Taiwan requested 66 American-made fighter jets, which lawmakers have said is a test of U.S. resolve.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is among lawmakers who have warned the administration not to link the jet sales to President Trump’s effort to broker a new bilateral trade agreement. Trump accuses China of foot-dragging and bad faith, and the talks have remained stalled for months.
The Chinese government accused the Trump administration of “playing the ‘Taiwan card” last month when Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen visited New York.
The People’s Daily newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, wrote that Washington “should immediately cancel the planned arms sale to Taiwan, stop selling weapons to Taiwan and terminate military contact with Taiwan, and exercise caution and prudence when handling Taiwan-related issues to avoid serious damage to China-U.S. relations and cross-strait peace and stability.”
Trump took the unusual step of speaking by phone with Tsai in 2016 when he was president-elect, which rocked the delicate U.S. foreign policy stance called the “One China” policy, and alarmed China. Since then he has courted a warm relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and said little about Taiwan.
“Taiwan’s defense is intrinsically important to the United States, but the timing of this move, amid the trade war and major instability in Hong Kong, is exceptionally precarious,” said Evan Medeiros, former White House senior director for Asia in the Obama administration and a professor at Georgetown University. “It will make trade negotiations and managing the Hong Kong situation even harder than it already is.”
He added that it would fuel conspiracy theories that the United States is behind the unrest in Hong Kong.
Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was less perturbed. “China never likes U.S. arms sales to Taiwan,” she said. “Will they object? Yes. Is this going to trigger a crisis in the relationship? No. This in and of itself is not going to derail progress on a trade agreement.”
She said the new aircraft would be comparable in capability to F-16 jet upgrades approved by the Obama administration. “This is not a new capability,” she said.
However, both Medeiros and Glaser noted Beijing’s previous threats to sanction U.S. companies that sell arms to Taiwan. Though China has not acted on its threat in the past, Glaser said, “there is some possibility that they will follow through on their threat this time.”
Tsai faces reelection next year and is casting her leadership as a counterpoint to an increasingly repressive and assertive mainland China. This has endeared her to Trump administration officials who are hawkish on China, but Trump’s own views are unclear.
Taiwanese media reported that U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, a China hawk, met with his Taiwanese counterpart in May. That would be the first time the top national security officials of the United States and Taiwan had met since formal diplomatic relations were severed in 1979.
In July, the State Department said it would sell $2.2 billion worth of weapons, including 108 Abrams tanks and 250 Stinger surface-to-air missiles, to Taiwan to help it “meet current and future regional threats.”
Taiwan split from China in 1949 when nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek fled from the Communists led by Mao Zedong and set up a rival government in Taipei. Beijing continues to view Taiwan as a renegade state that will one day return to China.