The House of Representatives voted Friday to require the United States to sell 66 new fighter-jets to Taiwan, with lawmakers saying the deal would close a growing military gap with China.
The House of Representatives voted to force President Barack Obama's administration to authorize the sale of F-16 jets in addition to plans under way to upgrade existing planes. The measure still needs Senate approval.
The measure's main sponsor, Republican Representative Kay Granger of Texas, said that Taiwan needed more than an upgrade of its aging fleet in light of the rapid growth in military spending by China, which claims the island.
"The sale of F-16s to Taiwan ensures our key strategic ally in the Pacific has the defense capacity to defend its own airspace," Granger said in a statement Friday.
"Our support for a democratic Taiwan is consistent with our national security priorities in the region and demonstrates that we will continue to stand by our friends and allies no matter who or where the threats are from."
The House of Representatives approved the measure by a voice vote late Thursday as part of a slew of amendments to a defense bill adopted in a marathon session. The Republican-controlled chamber the full bill on Friday.
The Obama administration, whose Democratic Party controls the Senate, authorized a $5.85 billion upgrade of Taiwan's existing jets in September but held off on the sale of brand-new jets.
The administration argued that the upgrade would bring more immediate benefits to Taiwan than a sale. But the move was widely seen as a way to limit criticism from China at a time when the United States seeks Beijing's cooperation on a range of issues from trade disputes to standoffs with North Korea and Iran.
China publicly denounced the upgrade plan but US officials say they have seen little concrete retaliation, such as a freeze on military relations, of the kind Beijing carried out after previous arms sales to Taiwan.
Senator John Cornyn, also a Republican from Texas, until last month blocked the confirmation of a Pentagon official until the White House said in a letter that it would give "serious consideration" to the sale of new jets.
Cornyn hailed the House vote, saying it sent "a message to nations around the world that America will not abandon our friends or our principles in the face of Chinese intimidation."
Cornyn has led a companion bill in the Senate to force the sale. Lawmakers have also argued that a contract for the planes would bring needed jobs to Texas and other states.
The US Congress is a stronghold of support for Taiwan, where China's nationalists fled in 1949 after losing the civil war to the communists. The self-governing island has since developed into a prosperous democracy.
When the US switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, Congress approved a law that requires the administration to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself.
Tensions have eased since Taiwan in 2008 elected President Ma Ying-jeou, who has tried to improve relations with the mainland and reached a landmark trade pact. Ma, however, has said that Taiwan needs new fighter-jets.
In a report to Congress released Friday, the Pentagon noted that China has never renounced the right to use force to achieve unification with Taiwan.
China is still "developing military capabilities to give it the ability to settle the dispute on Beijing's terms," the report said.
"However, Beijing still lacks these capabilities and recognizes the costs and risks associated with a decision to escalate the dispute to the point of conflict," it said.