In a move sure to enrage Beijing, Taiwan finalized the purchase of F-16 fighter jets from US aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin on Friday, a source confirmed to AFP, in a massive US$62 billion, 10-year deal.
Underscoring the sensitivity of the transaction, the Pentagon announced the contract without specifying the buyer, but a source familiar with the matter confirmed to Agence France-Presse that it was Taiwan.
The self-ruled island, which China considers part of its territory, last year obtained the green light from Washington for the purchase of 66 new-generation F-16s, which will allow it to modernize its defenses.
Taiwan already has a fleet of F-16s purchased in 1992.
The new contract, which the Pentagon said is for an initial delivery order of 90 jets, provides for more modern aircraft with the newest technology and weaponry, AFP reported.
Media reports say the Taiwan F-16s will be equipped with a top-line fire control radar made by Northrop Grumman Corp. Called the APG-83, it would allow precision-guided munitions to be fired at greater distances.
Beijing insists that Taiwan – an island of 23 million people that has been self-ruled since 1949 – is part of its territory and has vowed to respond with force if Taipei ever formally moves toward declaring independence.
Washington, which switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, remains Taiwan’s most powerful ally and its main supplier of arms, AFP reported.
The Lockheed contract comes as Beijing flexes its political muscle in Hong Kong, imposing a sweeping security law on the international business hub, a move that has caused concern in Taiwan.
According to the Hindustan Times, when the planned sale was announced in August last year, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry told reporters that “US arms sales to Taiwan severely violate the one-China principle.”
The spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said at the time that her government was urging the US to “refrain” from selling the “fighter jets to Taiwan and stop arms sales to, and military contact with, Taiwan. Otherwise, the Chinese side will surely make strong reactions, and the US will have to bear all the consequences.”
In addition to Taiwan, Morocco is buying 24 F-16s jets in the first tranche of 90 aircraft that the Pentagon said was valued at $4.9 billion, the Times reported.
The Pentagon announcement didn’t name Taiwan or Morocco, but they have been identified in a previous statement and were confirmed on Friday by a person familiar with the contract.
According to Defense News, The fighter-jet sale had been in limbo, as the White House directed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to hold off, congressional sources said.
That fueled speculation that President Donald Trump planned to use it as a bargaining chip in ongoing trade negotiations with China.
The move had been sought by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen as part of a larger drive to combine American arms with domestically developed training jets, submarines and other weapons technology, Defense News reported.
Washington negotiated the sale with Taipei over several years, leaning on Taiwanese leaders to devote a significant part of the government’s budget to purchase the fighter jets.
Lawmakers were concerned a reversal by Trump would look bad for Tsai, whose government proposed increasing the total national defense budget by 5.2% in 2020 and is running for re-election, Defense News reported.
Meanwhile, Ni Feng, director of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Saturday the US is attempting to take a tough stance, and the move could be considered as corresponding to the recent People’s Liberation Army drills.
Under these circumstances, the US move is even more dangerous, as it steps on and even crosses the Chinese mainland’s red line on the Taiwan question, Ni said, noting that the risk of a confrontation continues to rise.
– With reporting by AFP