The United States on Wednesday announced a $5.85 billion upgrade of Taiwan’s F-16 fighter jets, leading to a swift rebuke by China even though the deal stopped short of selling new planes.
Taiwanese and US officials insisted that the upgrade would improve the island’s defences as it faces a rising China, which has ramped up military spending and has widened its strategic edge over the self-governing territory.
“After the upgrade, the air force’s combat capability will be advanced hugely,” Taiwan’s defence minister Kao Hua-chu told a hastily called press conference in Taipei.
China, which claims Taiwan as its territory and has repeatedly warned the United States not to sell weapons, summoned the new US ambassador to Beijing, Gary Locke, and warned of repercussions.
“The wrongdoing by the US side will inevitably undermine bilateral relations as well as exchanges and cooperation in military and security areas,” China’s vice foreign minister Zhang Zhijun said, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Zhang Yesui, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, also lodged a strong protest in Washington, Xinhua said.
The Pentagon formally notified the US Congress of the package for Taiwan on Wednesday, ending prolonged speculation over the extent to which Washington would help modernise the island’s air force.
Taipei applied in 2007 to buy 66 F-16 C/D fighters, which have better radar and more powerful weapons systems than its F-16 A/Bs, in response to China’s growing military muscle.
The US offer to upgrade Taiwan’s existing fleet of 146 US-made F-16 A/Bs falls short of that ambition and is seen by some observers on the island as a “consolation prize”.
US lawmakers across party lines had pressed President Barack Obama’s administration to sell new jets, saying that the move would both protect Taiwan and create badly needed jobs in the United States.
Republican Senator John Cornyn accused the Democratic administration of kowtowing to China and failing to meet obligations under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which requires Washington to ensure Taiwan’s self-defense.
The arms decision “bestows upon Communist China a newfound sway over American national security, and this capitulation should be met with concern by US allies everywhere,” Cornyn said.
“Taiwan must have the tools to defend itself against potential Chinese aggression,” he said.
Cornyn has introduced legislation that would force the sale of 66 new F-16s. The senator represents Texas, which would be expected to benefit economically from arms production for Taiwan.
However, both the Pentagon and Taiwan’s defence ministry said that the upgrade, which would take 12 years to complete, would give the island’s F-16 A/Bs a significant boost.
The jets will be equipped with radar capable of detecting Chinese stealth airplanes and may also be armed with precision munition, according to Taiwan’s defence ministry.
The Pentagon said that the retrofit of the aircraft, to be led by weapons giant Lockheed Martin, “will greatly enhance the recipient’s ability to defend its borders.”
“This proposed sale serves US national, economic and security interests by supporting the recipient?s continuing efforts to modernize its armed forces and enhance its defensive capability,” the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency said in a statement.
The Pentagon agency also said that Taiwanese pilots would travel to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona for training in “disaster relief missions, non-combatant evacuation operations and other contingency situations.”
Washington recognises Beijing rather than Taipei but remains the primary arms supplier to the island of 23 million inhabitants, providing a source of continued Sino-US tension.
Ties between China and Taiwan have improved since Ma Ying-jeou of the China-friendly Kuomintang party came to power in 2008 on promises of ramping up trade links and allowing in more Chinese tourists.
But Beijing has refused to renounce the use of force against Taiwan even though the island has ruled itself for more than six decades since their split in 1949 at the end of a civil war.