The administration of President Barack Obama is raising the possibility that it could sell new jet fighter aircraft to Taiwan to help redress the island's air power deficit with China.
If the move goes through, it would infuriate Beijing, which claims the democratic island as its territory and regards all foreign defense sales there as interference in its affairs.
China has 2,300 operational combat aircraft, against only 490 for Taiwan. In September, the U.S. turned down a Taiwanese request for 66 relatively advanced F-16 jet fighters, while agreeing to help Taiwan upgrade its existing F-16 fleet. Critics accused the White House of yielding to pressure from China.
China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949. Despite a marked improvement in relations over the past four years, China still threatens to attack across the 160-kilometer-wide (100-mile-wide) Taiwan Strait if Taiwan moves to make its de facto independence permanent.
The possible change in American policy came in a letter Friday from White House director of legislative affairs Rob Nabors to Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas. The letter said that a newly appointed assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific affairs would consider the matter of selling new U.S. warplanes to Taiwan.
"The assistant secretary ... will play a lead role as the administration decides on 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 U.S.-made fighter aircraft," Nabors wrote.
Cornyn had been holding up confirmation of the assistant secretary, Mark Lippert, but removed the hold after receiving Nabors' letter.
Taiwan's Defense Ministry welcomed Nabors' letter.
"We welcome and express our gratitude for any acts that may help elevate and strengthen our defense capabilities," the ministry said in a statement.
Any sale of new U.S. combat aircraft to Taiwan would infuriate China, which sees the Taiwan arms issue as the biggest irritant in relations with Washington. It criticizes any Taiwan arms sales in very harsh terms, and routinely suspends defense exchanges with the U.S. to protest them.
Nabors' letter did not specify which U.S. warplane might be sold to Taiwan. However, the Taiwanese have expressed an interest in the F-35, a 5th generation stealth fighter with ground attack and air defense capabilities.
The plane, which is not yet fully operational, is so far slated for inclusion in both the U.S. fighter arsenal and those of a number of close American allies, including Britain, Italy and the Netherlands.