Taiwan still hopes to acquire 66 Lockheed Martin F-16 C/Ds, but Washington appears reluctant to move the deal forward and offend China.
Reports in Taiwan media have quoted Taiwan's ministry of national defence as saying it is still pushing to acquire the US aircraft, denying earlier reports that Taiwan was willing to accept a "watered down" deal for defence equipment from the USA.
"The report is not true," the ministry has reportedly said. "The country's position to seek eight diesel-powered submarines and F-16C/Ds has never changed. The deal is still in the US government's screening process. The ministry will keep pushing for the deal so as to meet Taiwan's self-defence demands."
The submarine sale was originally approved by former US president George Bush in 2001, but the agreement has yet to be finalised. The USA has not built diesel electric submarines since the 1960s, and European countries with leading diesel electric submarine technology such as Germany and France are wary of riling China.
Similar concerns in Washington about China's sensitivities appear to be delaying the F-16 C/D deal. During a recent visit to the USA, Chinese army chief Chen Bingde urged his hosts to cease arms sales to Taiwan, and review the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which requires the USA to sell Taiwan arms of a defensive nature.
Taiwan's air force was considered superior to that of China as recently as 10 years ago, but today its F-16 A/Bs, Dassault Mirage 2000s and Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation Ching Kuo Indigenous Defence Fighters are increasingly opposed by modern Chinese air force types such as the Chengdu J-10, Shenyang J-11 (a copy of the Sukhoi Su-27), and the Sukhoi Su-30
In addition, China is conducting tests of the Chengdu J-20. Although experts question the aircraft's true stealth capabilities, the J-20 is a large aircraft and, if deployed, would likely be able to carry heavy weapons loads over long ranges. A recent Rand report said the J-20 would be ideal for mounting fast strikes against Taiwan and US bases in the Pacific.
Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow at Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, doubts the F-16 C/D deal will go through. He noted that China is today much more assertive about suspending military exchanges with the USA, as it did in early 2010 when Washington approved a $6.1 billion arms package to Taiwan that included 60 Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters and 114 Lockheed Patriot PAC-3 missiles.
That sale also spurred Beijing to threaten sanctions against the US companies involved in the deal. This included Boeing, which sells large numbers of commercial aircraft to mainland airlines, Sikorsky parent United Technologies, and General Electric, which manufactures the UH-60M's T700 engines.
Although relations between China and Taiwan have improved in recent years, China has never forgone the option of using force to reacquire Taiwan, which it views as a breakaway province.
"At the end of the day, America is going to look out for its own interests first," says a Taiwan industry source.