TAIPEI – China is threatening to retaliate if the United States sells some of its top military aircraft to Taiwan, narrowing the power gap between its People’s Liberation Army and the forces of its rival Taiwan.

China said it would sanction American companies that make the F-16V fighter jets, which are normally contracted to Lockheed Martin. And its foreign ministry has pledged further steps, according to the official Xinhua News Agency, which noted on Aug. 21 to “take all necessary measures to protect our interests.”

For Taiwan, that likely means more economic sanctions such as scaling back tourism bound for the island, analysts in Taipei say.

Chinese aircraft carriers could step up activity near Taiwan while its air force jets fly near the boundaries of Taiwan’s air defense zone, some speculate.

“Of course, they have many tools in the box,” said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “There are many tools that they can punish Taiwan.”

Epic arms sale

The U.S. government notified Congress on Aug. 18 of its proposal to sell 66 F-16V fighter jets for $8 billion – following a request from Taipei earlier in the year. China is Taiwan’s only military rival, and the U.S. government is the island’s chief supplier of advanced arms. The F-16 sale would be the biggest U.S.-Taiwan arms deals in some 20 years.

The government in Beijing claims self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and has not ruled out use of force, if needed, to unify the two sides. More than 80% of Taiwanese told a government survey in January they prefer autonomy over a union with China.

In Beijing, the government’s Taiwan Affairs Office urged Washington to stop selling arms and quit “its support for Taiwan independence” separatist forces, Xinhua said last week. News reports in Beijing quoted a Chinese general saying separately that the country would “not sit idly by” if the F-16 sale proceeds.

Possible action

China did not say how it might hit back at Taiwan, and so far Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense sees no danger signs.

“Regarding this stance by China, we are paying close attention and keeping it in our grasp,” ministry spokesman Shih Shun-wen said Tuesday. “The situation we’ve grasped so far appears to be normal.”

Eventually Chinese military aircraft and aircraft carriers might pass near Taiwan to intimidate it, said Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan. The number of inbound Chinese tourists might decline, too, he said. China probably will not say which measures are responses to the F-16 sale, he said, because they are already using both.

Officials in China have made military threats and curtailed tourism since 2016, when Tsai Ing-wen became president in Taipei. China resents Tsai for declining negotiations on the precondition that both sides belong to one country.

China could also tax Taiwanese imports, quit notarizing documents from Taiwan and restrict travel of some Taiwanese, Huang said.

To retaliate further, he said, the Beijing government might find any Taiwanese involved in the ongoing mass anti-China protests in Hong Kong and blame it on the Taiwan representative office there, even if it means making up a story.

China normally targets the United States, which it accuses of meddling in a dispute beyond its jurisdiction, after arms sales to Taiwan. Beijing sanctioned U.S. weapons suppliers in 2010 after a $6.4 billion sale approved then for Taiwan and suspended Sino-U.S. military exchanges.

And over the past three years, as Tsai grows closer to the United States, Chinese military aircraft have flown near Taiwan’s air defense zone and China has persuaded five countries to switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

Still deliberating?

China will probably prioritize the Sino-U.S. trade dispute and may wait for the results of Taiwan’s January 2020 presidential race before deciding how to react said, Alex Chiang, an international relations professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei. China can take its time since it would still lead Taiwan in military might even after the F-16 sale, Chiang said.

Taiwanese voters will pick in January between another four years for Tsai and a candidate who advocates friendlier relations with China.

“I think that they are still thinking about what to do to so-called punish the United States or Taiwan,” Chiang said. “They still try to take some time to figure out how to react, but I think they will take some action.”