Taiwan's plans to buy new Lockheed Martin F-16C/D fighters appear to be gaining some traction, with the outgoing de-facto US ambassador to the island saying that senior officials in Washington are likely to consider the issue shortly.
Stephen Young, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, told reporters in Taipei that senior officials from the Obama administration would study a long-standing request for 66 new F-16C/Ds worth $1.3 billion after settling into their new jobs.
"As (senior officials) get into place, they will continue to look closely at this whole question," said Young, who heads the institute that has represented US interests in Taiwan since Washington switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. The USA would help to enhance the island's security in a "nature that reflects our own national interests as well as our commitments to Taiwan", he added.
The USA is legally obligated to help Taiwan defend itself and the request for the F-16C/Ds is part of an arms package that Taipei put forward in 2001. But the issue is contentious because China has regarded the island as a renegade province since their split in 1949, and threatened to attack if Taiwan declares independence.
Young added that the USA does "not consult with Beijing on our security cooperation or our arms decisions involving Taiwan". China, however, opposes all arms sales to Taipei, and last year said that they "grossly interfered in China's internal affairs (and) endangered Chinese national security". The USA has been treading carefully as it wants to avoid rocky relations with an important strategic and economic partner.
Taiwan's defence minister Chen Chao Min said this week that, contrary to media reports, Washington had not asked Taipei to choose between upgrades to its existing F-16A/Bs and new F-16C/Ds. Requests for mid-life upgrades for the F-16A/Bs and the new fighters are proceeding in tandem, he added.
The island's air force is also waiting for the government to fund an upgrade programme for its indigenous Aerospace Industrial Development Corp (AIDC) F-CK-1A/B fighters. Apart from the F-16s, the service also has a fleet of ageing Dassault Mirage 2000-5s.
The USA said in March that Lockheed would refurbish 12 surplus P-3C maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft for Taiwan as part of the 2001 deal. The aircraft will be fitted with new avionics and life-extension kits, with the first P-3C scheduled for delivery in 2012 and the rest by 2015. The $1.3 billion contract includes support, maintenance, spares and other services.
Last year, it also said that it would sell 30 Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters worth $2.5 billion, upgrade packages for Taipei's four Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye airborne warning and control system aircraft, and badly needed spares for the island's F-16A/Bs and Northrop F-5 fighters.
Taipei is also hopeful that the Obama administration would give it the nod to buy 60 Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters by end-2009.