This article was updated to reflect comment from key U.S. lawmakers.
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 administration 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 fighter jet sale had been in limbo 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.
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.
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 the State Department can issue a letter of offer and acceptance to Taiwan for the sale.
Key members of Congress on Friday said the sale will likely be supported on a bipartisan basis in both chambers, and they invoked the strong bonds between the U.S. and Taiwan.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and the panel’s top Republican, Rep. Michael McCaul, of Texas, said in a joint statement that the sale “sends a strong message about the U.S. commitment to security and democracy in the Indo-Pacific” amid China’s “military aggression in the region.”
“Following our meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen in New York last month, we know this sale will underscore our deep and enduring partnership with Taiwan,” they said. "Further, it will help deter China as they threaten our strategic partner Taiwan and its democratic system of government.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, cheered Trump and welcomed the sale as “critical to improving Taiwan’s ability to defend its sovereign airspace, which is under increasing pressure from the People’s Republic of China.”
"Taiwan is a steadfast partner of the United States in advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific, and the United States remains firmly committed to supporting its defense,” Risch 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 a plane that already forms the backbone of Taiwan’s air forces. The country 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 variant, but approval for that jet does not appear forthcoming.
In July, the U.S. approved the potential sale of 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks and other equipment, worth a combined $2 billion.
The State Department said it was its policy not to comment on proposed defense sales until they are formally notified to Congress.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-T.X., hailed Trump for the move in a Twitter post Friday and also 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.
Before heading out for Congress’s summer recess weeks ago, Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were urging the Trump administration to move the sale forward.
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.
“Hell, I’d like to sell them F-35’s, so the least we could do is sell them F-16s,” Sen. Corey Gardner, R-Colo., and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee that covers Asia. “It’s the law.”
The U.S. is bound by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”
Previous requests, including one for 66 new F-16s, were rejected by the Obama administration. The White House at the time instead offered to upgrade Taiwan’s existing fleet of about 140 F-16A/B Block 20 aircraft, the first of which have been delivered to Taiwan’s Air Force. As of March, however, this process was behind schedule.
In addition to its F-16s, Taiwan’s Air Force is operating the French Mirage 2000 and the locally made AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo fighters, although all three types date from the 1990s and are due for replacement soon, even after upgrades.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.