threatened the U.S. with unspecified “countermeasures” if it follows through with a planned sale of F-16s fighter jets to Taiwan – the first of what will likely be many repercussions for the Trump administration’s military support for a country Beijing considers a renegade province.
News of the planned sale emerged early Friday after the State Department informed Congress Thursday evening of the administration’s intent to sell 66 of the Fighting Falcon jets to Taiwan. Leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees – which would need ultimately to approve the sale – issued statements of support shortly after. The chairman and ranking member of the House committee called the sale “a strong message about the U.S. commitment to security and democracy in the Indo-Pacific” against China’s “military aggression in the region.”
Beijing, however, blasted the move, saying through its state news service it opposes the sale and has lodged complaints to its American counterparts. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters that China would “take countermeasures and the U.S. will be responsible for all related consequences,” Xinhua news reported.
The White House has been largely silent about the sale. It comes at a particularly consequential time in U.S.-Chinese relations as a trade war looms with both sides threatening further economic punishments against the other. Chinese President Xi Jinping also faces domestic unrest over widespread pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong – a semi-autonomous state that came under Chinese control from the British in 1997 – and subsequent harsh crackdowns from Chinese authorities.
Despite taking a hard line against China’s policies, Trump has not openly criticized President Xi Jinping in recent weeks, despite continued crackdowns in Hong Kong, as he tries to maintain forward momentum in resolving the trade dispute.
“I know President Xi of China very well. He is a great leader who very much has the respect of his people. He is also a good man in a ‘tough business.’ I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?” Trump tweeted on Wednesday in what some feared could be interpreted as a tacit approval of China’s actions so far.
Many analysts believe China’s attempts to exert more control over Hong Kong’s administration portends an attempt to similarly attempt to annex Taiwan – a government only formally recognized by fewer than two dozen countries due to Chinese pressure. Taiwan is represented in the U.S., for example, through an economic and cultural representative office, not an embassy.
“The United States must make clear to China that it cannot achieve a fait accompli in Taiwan or elsewhere, nor can it escalate its way to victory through the use of force,” Christopher Dougherty, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security’s Defense Program, said in an analysis note earlier this week.
Containing China, and the likelihood it could escalate its use of military force, rests on defending U.S. interests and that of its allies, including Taiwan, Dougherty said.
Other analysts believe the sale represents more of a symbolic gesture to the island nation rather than genuinely bolstering the capabilities of its military against a potential conflict with China’s massive armed forces. Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Washington Post that China will oppose the sale but it won’t ultimately trigger any broader crises.
“This in and of itself is not going to derail progress on a trade agreement,” Glaser said.
She adds the new jets will be comparable in capability to upgrades to Taiwan’s existing fleet that the Obama administration oversaw. The U.S. hasn’t sold new F-16s to Taiwan since the George H.W. Bush administration.