Hong Kong CNN  — 

Taiwan will receive 66 new American-made F-16 fighter jets in the biggest arms sale to the self-governing island in years.

The deal finalized on Friday comes as China has been increasing pressure on the island, which Beijing considers to be an inseparable part of its territory.

Friday’s announcement was made on the website of United States Defense Department, under the contacts updated section. The posting said the US Air Force was awarding a contract to Lockheed Martin, the maker of the F-16, for 90 of the planes as part of US foreign military sales.

No customer for the purchase was named, but a US State Department source confirmed that an order from Taiwan approved by the Trump administration a year ago was part of the deal.

The other 24 aircraft are expected to go to Morocco. Final deliveries are expected by 2026.

The new F-16s, known as the F-16V or Viper, will be made at Lockheed Martin factories in Greenville, South Carolina, and Fort Worth, Texas. They will be the latest, upgraded models of the single-engine aircraft which first flew with the US Air Force in the late 1970s. They will join about 140 others already in the Taiwanese fleet.

A US Air Force F-16 Viper  takes off from Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, on July 27, 2020.

When the deal was formally approved last year, it was greeted with strong bipartisan backing from Congress, including from the Democratic chairman and the leading Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The sale of F-16s to Taiwan sends a strong message about the US commitment to security and democracy in the Indo-Pacific,” Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York and Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas said in a joint statement last August.

That announcement a year ago came at a time of increasing tensions between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan, a democracy of around 24 million people, and things have only gotten worse since, hitting a new low point last week when US Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar visited the island for talks with its leaders. Azar was the highest ranking US official to visit Taiwan in four decades.

Beijing responded by condemning the visit while sending its fighter jets past the median point in the Taiwan Strait, the relatively narrow stretch of water separating Taiwan from mainland China. It was only the third time since 1999 that Chinese warplanes purposely crossed that line, according to Taiwanese and US government reports.

Then later in the week, the People’s Liberation Army announced it had staged military drills at both the northern and southern end of the Taiwan Strait. The exercises were “a necessary move responding to the current security situation in the Taiwan Straits and were meant to safeguard national sovereignty,” said spokesperson for the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command, Senior Col. Zhang Chunhui.

Four US-made F-16 fighter jets cross the sky during a drill near the Suao navy harbour in Yilan, eastern Taiwan, on April 13, 2018.

And on Saturday, China’s state-owned Global Times tabloid published a critique of the F-16 sale.

“While the deal was approved by the Trump administration last year and a formal signing was expected to take place sooner or later, its announcement at this particular time is believed to be yet another US provocation and a step on the red line of the Taiwan question, which further risks confrontation,” the Global Times report said, citing Chinese military analysts.

The “red line” is any Taiwanese move for independence from Beijing.

But Drew Thompson, a former US Defense Department official now at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, said Friday’s announcement was procedural more than provocative, as Lockheed Martin had to line up subcontractors to get the specific components to make the airplanes to Taipei’s specifications.

“It’s a bit like buying a car. This was finalizing the options that Taiwan wanted,” Thompson said.

A case for stabilization

Australian military analyst Peter Layton of the Griffith Asia Institute said the F-16 sale could actually help stabilize the Taiwan situation, at least from a military standpoint.

“The sale will act to broadly maintain the air combat balance” between Taiwanese (ROCAF) and Chinese (PLAAF) air forces, Layton said.

“The PLAAF has significantly more air combat aircraft than the ROCAF, but in a conflict the ROCAF will be defending and the PLAAF attacking. The difference in roles and that the ROCAF will be operating over its own airfields compensates for the difference in numbers,” he said.

“The additional F-16s will simply keep the balance into the early 2030s,” Layton said.