White House signals shift on sales of F-16 fighters to Taiwan

The White House is considering a change in policy toward the sale of F-16C/D fighters to Taiwan, a move that could further rile relations with China ahead of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s trip there this week.

White House Director of Legislative Affairs Robert Nabors wrote a letter to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) that said the Obama administration would give the sale of new F-16 aircraft to Taiwan “serious consideration,” after the administration had previously agreed in September only to help modernize Taiwan’s existing fleet of F-16A/B fighters, a less advanced aircraft than the Lockheed Martin-made F-16C/Ds.

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Cornyn, who made public the letter from Nabors on Friday, said that in response he re-released a hold that he had placed on the nomination of Mark Lippert as assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs.

While the Nabors letter does not get into details about when a sale might occur or how many fighters could be involved, it will add to a growing list of tensions between Washington and Beijing as Geithner and Clinton prepare to visit China for this year’s U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue.

The case of Chinese human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who escaped from house arrest and reports say has sought refuge in the American Embassy in Beijing, has threatened to hijack the U.S.-China meeting. Geithner and Clinton are not canceling the trip, however, Bloomberg reported Sunday.

Selling arms to Taiwan has long been a point of contention between the United States and China. In selling the Taiwanese F-16 fighters, Nabors said, “we recognize that China has 2,300 operational combat aircraft, while our democratic partner Taiwan has only 490.”

He said that Lippert would play a lead role as the administration decides “a near-term course of action on how to address Taiwan's fighter gap, including through the sale to Taiwan of an undetermined number of new U.S.-made fighter aircraft.”

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said that the letter to Cornyn “is consistent with our current policy on Taiwan, which has not changed.”

“We do not comment on future possible foreign military sales unless formal congressional notification has taken place,” Vietor said in an email.