The Obama administration unveiled a $5.85 billion arms package to upgrade Taiwan's F-16 fighter jets and faced an immediate backlash from Republicans who accused him of selling a U.S. friend short and caving in to Chinese pressure.
Taiwan, outgunned by rival mainland China, also wanted the U.S. to sell it new F-16s to replace its other aging warplanes. Senior U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, said Wednesday that request is still under consideration but gave no indication of when a decision would be reached.
The U.S. is obligated under legislation passed by Congress in 1979 to provide Taiwan weapons for its self-defense. But it also appears to be weighing the reaction of emerging superpower China, with which it has sought to deepen ties. Beijing has responded to previous arms sales to Taiwan by temporarily cutting military ties with Washington.
"This will help ensure Taiwan maintains the ability to defend its air space in both peace time and in any crisis," Campbell told a news conference. "We believe the approach that we have taken is prudent and careful and we will continue along those lines".
Political opponents quickly pounced on the decision. Republican Sen. John Cornyn from Texas, where the new F-16 planes would be built, declared it a "capitulation" to China that should be met with concern by U.S. allies everywhere. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared it a show of "weak leadership in foreign policy."
Seven senators led by Cornyn _ two of them Democrats _ have introduced legislation seeking to mandate the sales of the 66 F-16 C/D planes. A similar bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives but it still faces many hurdles before making it into law.
The administration has hedged its bets by agreeing for now only to upgrade the 145 F-16 A/B fighter jets that Taiwan bought from the U.S. in the 1990s. Those planes remain the backbone of its air power, which is now dwarfed by the mainland's.
The package includes weapons and structural upgrades for the planes and what Taiwan's Defense Ministry said was AESA radar it wanted. The system will provide the planes the ability to detect stealth aircraft, like the J-20 that China is developing.
The deal also includes a five-year extension of F-16 pilot training and aircraft spare parts for sustaining Taiwan's F-16 A/Bs, its near-obsolete fleet of F-5s and its C-130 transport planes.
But the ministry repeated its desire for Washington to approve sales of F-16 C/Ds.
Despite a sharp reduction in tensions across the 100-mile (160-kilometer) -wide Taiwan Strait since Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou took power in 2008 and engaged the mainland in trade talks, Beijing has continued to build up its military posture against the self-governing island.
Ma, who faces re-election in January, says getting the new planes would improve his negotiating position with China, which regards Taiwan as part of its territory and threatens to invade should the island ever make a declaration to formalize its de facto independence.
The two sides split amid civil war in 1949.
Washington will be watching closely to see how China reacts to the arms package. Its initial response after the administration's decision leaked over the weekend was relatively muted. The ruling Communist Party enters its own leadership succession next year and may want to keep relations on an even keel with Washington.
But angry diplomatic protests appear inevitable, and Beijing could scale back military ties with the U.S. to show its displeasure. It cut them entirely for several months after Washington's January 2010 authorization of sales of Black Hawk helicopters.