Signs from Washington over the last few days must have encouraged those in the military who are clamoring for the purchase of 66 F-16C/D fighter jets from the US.
Politicians attending a Taiwan-themed conference this week gave indications there was broad consensus on Capitol Hill to support such a move, and this was followed by more positive news on future arms sales from Kurt Campbell during his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday for the post of assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs.
Let’s be blunt: Taiwan’s Air Force is in desperate need of some new hardware.
A recent article in Defense News said the Air Force has 390 fighters, including 146 F-16A/Bs, purchased in 1992; 128 Indigenous Defense Fighters, developed in the 1980s; 56 Mirage jets, also purchased in 1992 but which may soon be mothballed because of high maintenance costs; and roughly 60 F-5s, which are due to be retired in the next few years.
Compare this situation with China’s rapidly modernizing military arsenal and it is clear that the Air Force needs the US to act fast on this matter if it is to maintain any semblance of credibility in air power.
Support from US lawmakers, however, does not necessarily translate to a green light, as any arms sale would also need the approval of the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon.
The likelihood of that approval is hard to assess because after five months in office there is no clear indication of the Obama administration’s policy direction on Taiwan.
Campbell’s confirmation would be a good sign, as he has a strong record of support for Taiwan. But he alone will not be enough, as there are others in the administration, such as special envoy to North Korea Stephen Bosworth, who see Taiwan’s democracy as an irritant in the US’ relations with China.
There has been talk of a Taiwan policy review and this will surely be the key to determining the scope and scale of any sales, but Chinese relations with the US will also have a bearing on future deals, despite Washington’s claims to the contrary.
But the biggest hurdle to sales of more advanced weaponry may be Taiwan itself.
Although there has been lots of positive feedback from US officials on the direction of cross-strait relations since the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) returned to power in May last year, the rapid pace of the rapprochement must also have raised concerns about the wisdom of selling advanced weaponry to Taipei while noises emanate from both sides of the Taiwan Strait about “military confidence-building measures.”
President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) policy of downplaying Taiwan’s military capacity to curry favor with Beijing and elicit economic favors could also make Taiwan reluctant to pursue such a high-profile deal.
This would not only compromise Taiwan’s position in cross-strait negotiations, betraying those who do not want Taiwan to capitulate to Chinese demands, but also further baffle sections of a military already confused about its role.
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