A senior Taiwanese official believes the USA could approve a request for the purchase of 66 Lockheed Martin F-16C/Ds in May, two months after China-friendly Ma Ying Jeou won the island's presidential elections.
Taipei has sought new fighters for several years, but Washington has stalled over concerns about the impact of a sale on relations with China. Efforts by Ma's predecessor Chen Shui Bian to get Taiwan to declare independence, and to hold a referendum on applying for UN membership, also contributed to the lack of progress.
"Signs show that the USA may sell the F-16C/Ds after May. We're very optimistic," says air force chief of staff Lt Gen Liu Chen Wu. Observers have said that Washington would clear the sale after Taiwan's elections, and especially if Ma came to power. A deal, likely to be worth around $3.1 billion, could be concluded before US president George Bush leaves office next January.
This would inevitably lead to protests from China, which considers Taiwan a renegade province. Kuomintang forces fled to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war on the mainland to communist forces. Beijing has tried to isolate Taiwan ever since, and vigorously opposes any moves to arm the island or to help it to declare independence.
China protested last year after a sale to Taiwan of 12 refurbished Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion anti-submarine warfare aircraft for $1.96 billion was approved. Deliveries are scheduled to begin in 2011 to replace the island's Grumman S-2T Trackers. Taiwan is also likely to seek 30 Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters, and is considering the Bell UH-1Y and Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters for a 60-aircraft requirement. It is also believed to be keen on buying refurbished Boeing KC-135 tankers.
Last August, Taiwan's cabinet approved a 16.4% increase in defence spending for 2008, with the bulk of the additional $10.3 billion set aside for procurements. Ma said before the elections that he supports the purchase of new F-16s, as Taiwan's A/B-model aircraft are "out of date".