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The Trump administration has given tacit approval to Taiwan's request to buy more than 60 F-16 fighter jets, according to people familiar with the matter, prompting a fresh protest from China amid its trade dispute with the U.S.

President Donald Trump's advisers encouraged Taiwan to submit a formal request for the jets, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., which it did this month, according to the people, who asked not be identified discussing internal matters. Any such request would need to be converted into a formal proposal by the Defense and State departments, and then Congress would have 30 days to decide whether to block the sale.

"China's position to firmly oppose arms sales to Taiwan is consistent and clear," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing Friday in Beijing. "We have made stern representations to the U.S. We have urged the U.S. to fully recognize the sensitivity of this issue and the harm it will cause."

The U.S., wary of antagonizing China, hasn't sold advanced fighter jets to Taiwan since then-President George H.W. Bush announced the sale of 150 F-16s in 1992. President Barack Obama's administration rejected a similar Taiwanese request for new jets, agreeing in 2011 to upgrade the island's existing fleet.

Trump has chosen a more assertive approach at a time when the administration is locked in difficult negotiations with Chinese President Xi Jinping over trade. He's been prodded on by China hawks in Congress, who have passed legislation urging greater diplomatic and military ties with the democratically run island.

It's unclear whether a potential F-16 sale could become a bargaining chip in those talks or is solely an outgrowth of the administration's renewed focus on Taiwan, a U.S. ally long seen as a bulwark against Chinese expansion in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. has stepped up naval patrols through the Taiwan Strait and past Chinese military outposts in the disputed South China Sea in recent months, drawing protests from Beijing.

Mark Harrison, an adjunct director of Australian National University's Australian Center on China in the World, said China would calibrate its response to take account for a range of factors, including trade talks and local politics in Taipei. Xi might decide he needs to draw a firm line against perceived U.S. interference on Taiwan.

"The intensity of politics and policy change in the Xi era has been reflected in recent instances of PRC government officials acting with relatively greater belligerence in sensitive policy areas," Harrison said, referring to China's formal name. "Taipei and Washington will no doubt be attentive to any unpredictable responses from Beijing to the proposed arms sale."

The White House declined to comment on Taiwan's F-16 request, which several of the people said also includes tanks.

The Taiwanese Defense Ministry said in a statement that it hadn't yet "received an official response from the U.S." to its request.

In October, Vice President Mike Pence assailed China for moves to chip away at Taiwan's diplomatic presence overseas, and its ramping up of pressure on private companies to refer to Taiwan as a province of China.

In announcing its request for the planes, Taiwan didn't say how many jets it was seeking. The request followed a lengthy back-and-forth with the administration after the U.S. swatted down Taiwan's earlier request for Lockheed's more modern F-35.

Information for this story was contributed by Margaret Talev, Adela Lin, Miao Han, Peter Martin and David Tweed of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 03/23/2019

Print Headline: F-16 sale to Taiwan reportedly pushed

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