The US hasn’t sold advanced fighter jets to Taiwan since 1992, primarily because it has been wary of antagonizing China. In the eyes of Beijing, of course, Taiwan—despite its democratic elections and self-governing status—is part of China.
Earlier this month, however, the Trump administration gave its tacit approval (paywall) to Taiwan’s request to purchase 60 F-16V fighter jets. A formal request would still need US congressional approval, but the news has already rattled Beijing.
Addressing the issue on Thursday (March 28), defense ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said that China “resolutely opposes” such sales to Taiwan and that any words or actions that undermine the one-China policy are “extremely dangerous.”
On the same day, foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said at a briefing:
“I will reiterate our consistent, unequivocal and firm opposition to US arms sales to Taiwan. China has lodged stern representations to the US on this issue. We urge the US to fully realize the high degree of sensitivity and severe impact of this issue, honor its commitment to the one-China principle, and… stop arms sales to and military ties with Taiwan.”
Before answering the question, he took issue with how a reporter described Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen. “First I need to correct you on the title of Tsai Ing-wen. She is the leader of the Taiwan Region. The so-called title of ‘president’ is never recognized by China.”
The jets, in reality, wouldn’t do much to change the power equation across the Taiwan Strait, “nor will it eliminate the threat that China poses to forcibly absorb a democratic Taiwan,” Scott Harold, an associate director of Rand Corp.’s Center for Asia Pacific Policy, told Bloomberg (paywall).
The F-16Vs are advanced for what they are—fourth-generation fighter jets—but China has fifth-generation stealth fighters, such as the J-20, that are deemed rivals to Lockheed Martin’s advanced F-22s and F-35s. Sales of F-35s to Taiwan, which have been ruled out, would be far more of a provocation to China.
Instead, the sale of the F-16s would be more of a political shock to Beijing. The last time the US sold fighter jets to Taiwan—150 F-16s under the administration of president George H. W. Bush—China suspended military exchanges with the US. How it would respond this time is uncertain, though it’s hard to imagine China starting a conflict over the sale of a few dozen not-so-cutting-edge jets.
What’s clear, however, is that tension in the Taiwan Strait is increasing. In recent years China has stepped up military drills around Taiwan, including ones involving bombers and fighter jets last year. And earlier today (March 31), Chinese jets crossed a maritime border, a move Taiwan’s defense ministry said “seriously impacted regional safety and stability.”