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China threatens retaliation over US arms sale to Taiwan

[HONG KONG] China vowed retaliation against a proposed US$8 billion US sale of advanced fighter jets to Taiwan, threatening to impose sanctions on American firms participating in such a deal.

"China will take all necessary measures to defend its own interests, including imposing sanctions on the US companies involved in the arm sales," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a Wednesday briefing in Beijing. "They constitute severe interference in China's internal affairs and undermine China's sovereignty and security interests."

The 66 advanced Lockheed Martin F-16 jets, approved by the Trump administration, represents a boost for the island's military - and an even bigger boon for President Tsai Ing Wen as she faces a stiff campaign for re-election. It marks a major advance for the island's aging air defense capabilities, even if a base model of the fighter plane has been in its skies for almost half a century.

The US State Department formally notified Congress this week that it supports a potential sale of the jets. China, which considers democratically-run Taiwan part of its territory, has long considered such arms sales to the island as a violation of its agreements with the US.

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The US committed to providing Taiwan with the means to defend itself when it switched diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. Beijing had warned against the move even before the Trump administration formalised it.

Beijing's military is much larger and more advanced, with a missile arsenal that could likely wipe out the island's air strips in the event of any conflict across the Taiwan Strait. That makes the deal more of a political coup for Ms Tsai than any significant change to the military balance between Beijing and Taipei.

"Regardless of whether it can actually use US arms in combat, Taiwan has always appreciated any US arms sale, and especially the big ticket items such as F-16s, to symbolise Washington's continued security commitment to the island," said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst with Rand. "Taiwan's political calculation in the sale is purely to signal to Beijing that the US will defend the island if China decides to attack."

While the US declined to sell Taipei more advanced F-35 jets owned by both Japan and South Korea, the F-16V variant on offer is still a significant improvement over Taiwan's fleet. Though the planes were designed in the 1970s, Taiwan has been seeking newer US aircraft for more than a decade, and this would be the first such deal for American fighters since 1992.

China Pushes Back

Taiwanese presidential spokesman Ernesto Ting said Wednesday that Taipei will allocate a special budget to purchase the jets. He stressed the deal's symbolism.

"The decision by the US government is a significant gesture for security in the Taiwan Strait and regional stability and peace," Mr Ting said. The F-16 deal "helps uphold the welfare and freedom of the Taiwanese people."

Although China has threatened to sanction companies participating in the deal, few US defence contractors have significant business interests in China. China also threatened to stop doing business with US companies involved in a different proposed US weapons deal last month, but no sanctions or boycotts have been announced so far.

The US has generally tried to play down the technological capabilities of the weapons it sells Taipei. It wouldn't need to be as secretive this time around as Beijing is confident in its more advanced technology and news of a potential sale has been circulating for some time, said Wu Shang Su, a research fellow at Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"Due to China's superiority, the US would not need to downplay the capability as it did in the past," he said, adding that the level of backlash from Beijing depended largely on whether the US decides to include offensive weapons that could potentially be used to attack China, rather than simply defend the island.