The United States has approved the sale to Taiwan of a multimillion-dollar training and maintenance programme for its F-16 fighter jets.
The Pentagon’s announcement about the programme – estimated to cost US$500 million – comes as Taiwan moves to boost its defences in the face of growing military expansion by Beijing.
A Pentagon statement said the State Department had approved the sale of a programme of pilot training, maintenance and logistics support for the F-16 aircraft now at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
“This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security and defensive capability of the recipient, which has been and continues to be an important force for political stability, military balance, and economic progress in the region,” the statement said.
US arms sales to Taiwan are one source of friction between China and the US.
Beijing sees Taiwan as a wayward province that must return to the Chinese fold, by force if necessary. It has stepped up pressure against the island since Tsai Ing-wen, from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, became president in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle.
Beijing has staged a series of war games near Taiwan.
On Monday, Taiwanese warplanes and military vessels shadowed a group of mainland fighter jets, including Sukhoi-30 and Jian-11, which flew by the island from the south coast of China on their way to military drills in the Western Pacific.
Taiwan’s defence ministry said most of the PLA warplanes returned to the mainland after training.
Tsai called the new arms sales “timely” and warned that Beijing’s actions only “served to strengthen our resolve”.
“It came a day after Chinese warplanes once again were flying by to sabotage stability in the Taiwan Strait and the region, and damaging the status quo,” she said.
“A big country in the region should never act so irresponsibly. In safeguarding our national sovereignty, we will not give up an inch and will continue to uphold democracy and freedom.”
Tsai also said Taiwan’s military forces have the capacity and commitment to defend the island and the latest arms deal would help to ensure that its air force pilots remained among the best in the world.
Taiwan has asked the US to sell it 66 F-16V fighter jets and the US side is expected to give a reply to the request by July.
Macau-based military analyst Antony Wong Dong said the training and maintenance package for the F-16 was a preparation for the purchase of the F-16Vs.
Taiwan has also said it planned to increase its military budget to slightly more than NT$400 billion (US$13.1 billion) by 2027.
Tsai’s government has listed US$11.34 billion for this year’s defence budget, up 5.6 per cent from 2018, compared with Beijing’s US$177.5 billion, which represents a 7.5 per cent growth on last year’s military spending.