Following a request from Taiwan for the US to sell an improved version of the F-16 jet, media reported that Donald Trump's advisors have been pushing for the request to be approved.
Although Washington has declined to comment on the report, it has raised serious concerns in Beijing, which sees Taiwan as part of its territory. The island's government acts as an independent state despite a lack of diplomatic recognition from the international community and has recently established unofficial ties with the US military, a move harshly condemned by Beijing.
Paul Huang, an East Asia military analyst, believes that China's verbal response to the sale of the improved F-16s will be strong, but noted that its practical steps will be milder and "far more constrained". Benjamin Cavender, principal of the Shanghai-based China Market Research Group, agreed with him, noting that Beijing has taken a firmer stance on Taiwan in recent years, trying to downplay all demonstrations of the island's "sovereignty".
Prospect of F-16 Deal
Various media reports have suggested that the current US administration is interested in striking a deal to supply Taiwan with F-16 jets. Bloomberg reported that, citing its sources, Trump's advisors had urged Taiwan to submit an official request for new F-16 jets, which now needs to be presented by the Defence and State Departments as formal proposals for the Congress to review.
The Diplomat Magazine recalled that the US has long been bound by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, obliging Washington to supply the island "with arms of a defensive character". It also noted that with the inauguration of Donald Trump as US president, Washington's policy towards the island has slightly changed, as the American commander-in-chief had agreed to have a telephone talk with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, while many previous administrations had abstained from doing so.
Military analyst Paul Huang sees no reason why the US Congress would prevent Taiwan's request for F-16V jets. He pointed out that as opposed to 2011, when a similar request was rejected due to partisan politics and the Obama administration's unwillingness to provoke China, the current Congress has a strong consensus in favour of supporting Taiwan and countering China.
Benjamin Cavender was not certain whether the US Congress would give a green light to the deal, but refused to gauge its chances of passing. He noted though that the possible deal with Taiwan could be a sign of a "big policy shift designed to isolate China or counterbalance its military presence in the region".
Huang, in turn, noted that the improved F-16s won't become a "game changing capability" in the region, as China has heavily modernised and expanded its fleet of aircraft over the last decade.
China is currently developing a series of new jets and bombers to strengthen its aging fleet to meet modern demands. One of them, the J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter jet, is regarded as a rival to the American F-22 and F-35. Another upcoming addition, the Hong-20 (H-20) long-range stealth bomber, is yet to be revealed.
Possible Developments: From Cutting Ties to Outright Military Op
Huang listed a range of possible responses from China if Taiwan's procurement of F-16s is approved in the US. According to him, Beijing could cut ties between the two states' militaries, try to deprive Taiwan of its diplomatic allies, retaliate against companies involved in the production of F-16s, such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, or even intensify exports of sensitive military technologies to countries of concern to the US, such as Iran.
The military analyst also drew up two extreme scenarios, although he marked them as "highly unlikely". One such scenario would have China cutting all diplomatic ties with the US, whereas in the other, Beijing would use the F-16 procurement as a pretext for launching military action against Taiwan.
"It is extremely unlikely that the arms sales alone would be a factor in Beijing's strategic calculus in making such a decision, however", he said.
The analyst noted, though, that most of these responses would either have only a mild effect or cause more trouble for Beijing than for Washington or Taiwan. He said that the Chinese Armed Forces are getting more out of their cooperation with their American colleagues than vice versa, and that military supplies to American rivals would only trigger counter-measures from the US against China. He also added that measures targeting US military contractors would have little effect, as their presence in China is minimal.
Impact on Trade Talks Between China and the US
The request for F-16 supplies to Taiwan also comes amid crucial trade talks between Beijing and Washington. The two states were embroiled in a trade war in 2018, mutually imposing hefty tariffs on goods worth billions of dollars. The US and China have recently made certain progress towards striking a new trade deal, according to Donald Trump, who recently refused to impose a new round of tariffs in order to avoid hampering the trade talks.
Paul Huang was at a loss to predict if Beijing would retaliate against the F-16 supplies to Taiwan via its trade talks with the US, but at the same time suggested that Washington could be using the matter to pressure China in the talks.
"If anything, having the option to sell arms to Taiwan actually gives US decision makers a considerable leverage in its negotiating position with Beijing", Huang said.
Cavender also suggested that the possibility of selling F-16s to Taiwan could be used by Washington in trade talks with Beijing, but noted that there could be other reasons to permit the sale of the jets.
"This potential deal does come at the same time as the US is completing arms sales to its other allies in the region who are concerned about China's military build-up", he said.
The dispute over the possible F-16 supplies to Taiwan comes amid China's growing military presence in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, installing defensive systems on islands in the region and redeploying aircraft and military ships.
The US, in turn, has been conducting so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations by sending naval vessels to the South China Sea. Beijing has repeatedly slammed such operations as "provocations" and noted that it permits freedom of navigation in the region, arguing instead that the US is merely using it as a pretext to send its warships to the disputed waters.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.