American and Taiwanese flags fly together. Photo: Central News Agency, Taiwan

The US House of Representatives has passed the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019 and House Resolution 273, reaffirming the US commitment to Taiwan and the implementation of the Taiwan Relations Act, Washington’s key policy document to guide close yet unofficial ties with the self-ruled island, which turns 40 this year.

The Taiwan Assurance Act was passed unanimously, which stipulates that Taiwan is a vital part of the US free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.

The US should “conduct regular sales and transfers of defense articles to Taiwan in order to enhance its self-defense capabilities, particularly its efforts to develop and integrate asymmetric capabilities, including undersea warfare and defense capabilities, into its military forces,” reads the act.

In the fourth section on Taiwan’s inclusion in international organizations, the act says it is US policy to advocate for the island’s “meaningful participation” in international bodies “as appropriate” in the United Nations, the World Health Assembly, the International Civil Aviation Organization as well as Interpol.

It is also US policy to advocate for Taiwan’s membership in the Food and Agriculture Organization, UNESCO and “other international organizations for which statehood is not a requirement for membership,” it says.

The House also encourages mutual visits between US and Taiwanese officials, according to the Taiwan Travel Act that was signed into law by Donald Trump in March last year.

In return, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen thanked the House for its support, calling the US Taiwan’s “most important partner in the international community.”

F-16 training base relocation 

The passage came hot on the heels of an ongoing live-fire exercise by the People’s Liberation Army’s East Sea Fleet north of the Taiwan Straits, as waters off eastern Zhejiang province close to Taiwan’s northern maritime border have been cordoned off since Monday.

The war games follow a circumnavigation drill targeting Taiwan in April, which involved bombers and reconnaissance aircraft from the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command, the PLA’s frontier military region that will be the vanguard if Beijing mounts an invasion to retake the island.

The same waters also saw the passage of two US Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, William P Lawrence and Stethem, at the end of last month, the fourth time the US has sent warships through the Taiwan Strait within the span of five months.

A Taiwanese Air Force F-16 fighter at an air base in the island’s Hualien county. Photo: Reuters

Separately, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported that the current training ground for Taiwanese F-16 pilots at Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix in Arizona would be relocated to the nearby Arizona Air National Guard facility at the civil-military Tucson International Airport by 2021, in a schedule that would be two years later than an original plan.

The relocation of the 21st Fighter Squadron, where Taiwanese pilots are trained to fly the F-16 jets, will provide space for new F-35 fighters, according to the chief of staff of the Taiwanese Air Force.

Taiwan had reportedly been pursuing the purchase of the more advanced fifth-generation air supremacy fighter the F-35, which Washington is unlikely to sanction due to Beijing’s backlash and its own stance to supply the island with only defensive arms.

Yet the island is likely to get some 60 new F-16 jets from Lockheed Martin in their revamped V configuration, in a multi-billion arms sales deal to the island that will be the largest of its kind in almost three decades.

Taiwan’s F-16 pilots have been using the Luke base for more than two decades since the island bought its first batch of the jets in the early 1990s.

The Trump administration announced last month a US$500 million package meant for “the continuation of a pilot training program and maintenance/logistics support for Taiwan’s F-16 fleet,” according to a statement by the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

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