Trump Administration Approves F-16 Fighter Jet Sales to Taiwan

The Trump administration is moving forward with an $8 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, American officials said Friday. The move is certain to further anger China at a time when a long-running trade war between Washington and Beijing has upended relations between the world’s two largest economies and contributed to stock market turmoil.

The State Department told Congress Thursday night, right after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had signed a memo approving the sale, officials said. Congress is not expected to object to the move. For weeks, lawmakers from both parties had accused the administration of delaying the sale to avoid jeopardizing trade negotiations or to use it as a bargaining chip.

But trade talks in Shanghai at the end of July led nowhere, and President Trump said earlier this month that the United States would impose a 10 percent tariff on an additional $300 billion worth of Chinese imports on Sept. 1. He then partly reversed himself over concerns about the impact on Americans. He decided on Aug. 13 that he would hold back on tariffs on consumer goods until after the start of the Christmas shopping season.

Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, John R. Bolton, a foreign policy hawk, has been a longtime advocate of arms sales to Taiwan and has pushed for greater United States support for its government. Some analysts suggest China could retaliate by punishing American companies with sanctions, which it has done in the past.

On Friday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, was asked at a news conference in Beijing about the potential sale of fighter jets, hours before the news emerged of Mr. Trump’s final decision. She said the United States was violating China’s sovereignty and interfering in its internal affairs by with arms sales to Taiwan.

She said that Beijing would take unspecified “countermeasures” and stressed that the United States would be responsible for the consequences.

The sale of 66 jets to Taiwan would be the largest single arms package transaction between the United States and the democratic, self-governing island in years. The decision to proceed was first reported Friday by The Washington Post. Communist Party officials in Beijing have strongly objected to the package, which has been a longstanding request from Taiwan.

Chinese leaders have insisted for decades that they will reunify Taiwan with China. Taiwan has had de facto independence since 1949 and is supported by the United States.

As American administrations normalized diplomatic relations with China, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to set guidelines for ties with Taiwan. The act says the United States government must “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.”

The department gave informal notification of the sale on Thursday to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Once those committees tell the department to move ahead, which would probably happen within days or weeks, the agency would give formal notification to Congress and await any objections within 30 days.

Senator Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he welcomed the proposed sale. “These fighters are critical to improving Taiwan’s ability to defend its sovereign airspace, which is under increasing pressure from the People’s Republic of China,” Mr. Risch said.

The State Department said Friday that it did not comment on arms sales before formal notification to Congress.

Members of Congress expect the entire process to take place without hitches because there is strong bipartisan support for Taiwan and for the United States to take a forceful stand against China.

Congressional officials told The New York Times in late July that trade negotiators had persuaded Mr. Trump to delay the F-16 jet sale. Lawmakers had expected Mr. Pompeo to give the congressional committees at least informal notification by mid-July, before Congress went into recess, but that did not happen.

The jets would be the fourth package of arms sales to Taiwan from the Trump administration. The first two packages totaled less than $2 billion. On July 8, the Trump administration told Congress it was moving ahead with a $2.2 billion package that consisted mainly of 108 M1A2 Abrams tanks.

In his first term, President Barack Obama approved two large packages worth a total of $12 billion, then moved on sales of less than $2 billion in 2015. President George W. Bush approved packages worth less than $5 billion total in his first term, then pushed through sales worth more than $10 billion in his second term.

All administrations have taken into account the timing of arms sales to Taiwan in order to avoid upsetting Beijing at critical moments.

“There is never a good time to sell arms to Taiwan, but this timing is probably the worst possible choice,” said Evan S. Medeiros, professor in Asian studies at Georgetown University and senior Asia director on Mr. Obama’s National Security Council. “Trade talks will stall, China will try to hit American companies hard and Chinese will see a conspiratorial link between U.S. support for Taiwan and Hong Kong.”

The Chinese government has blamed the United States for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, though Mr. Trump has not made any strong statements in support of the protesters. Mr. Bolton has forcefully warned Beijing against any potential crackdown. He and other senior foreign policy advisers have urged Mr. Trump to declare a similar position on humanitarian grounds. Lawmakers from both parties and policy experts have also called for the president to advocate human rights.

“President Trump should not be equivocating on this,” said Kelly Magsamen, a senior Asia policy official in the Pentagon during the Obama administration. “He should be using the power of his office to press Xi Jinping to avoid a violent escalation. Instead, he’s sending all the opposite signals and pretending he has no influence.”

Mr. Trump’s top foreign policy aides generally see China as the greatest strategic rival to the United States and advocate aggressive positions. Mr. Trump has a transactional view of China and is focused almost entirely on narrowing the trade deficit. He has said China and the United States are “strategic partners” and expresses admiration for Mr. Xi, saying they “will always be friends.”

At the urging of officials concerned about the trade talks, the administration has refrained from enacting sanctions against Chinese officials deemed responsible for the detention of one million or more Muslims. Human rights advocates are pressing the administration to move ahead with those.

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