Sun, Feb 20, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan must weigh its options

By Gary Schmitt

When your girlfriend refuses to set a date for a wedding, and does so over several years, it’s probably a good idea to start looking around for another fiance. So it is today with Taiwan’s efforts to procure more than five dozen F-16s from the US. This is a courtship from Taipei’s end that has been going on since 2006. After nearly five years, it’s time to consider moving on.

Taiwanese Air Force officials first approached their US counterparts about the possible purchase of F-16s — the multi-role jet fighter, known as the Fighting Falcon — in the spring of 2006.

Shortly thereafter, in July, the Taiwanese government attempted to submit a formal Letter of Request to the US, the necessary first step in procuring defense material through the Foreign Military Sales process.

The administration of former US president George W. Bush refused to even accept delivery of the letter. Further efforts to submit the letter were also rebuffed and the administration of US President Barack Obama today appears just as reluctant as its predecessor to consider the F-16 sale.

There are several reasons for the US to drag its feet. In the first instance, the key factor was then-president Bush’s anger at former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), whom he believed had gone back on his word not to push policies that touched on Taiwanese independence.

Whether Bush was right or wrong in his judgment, this allowed others in the US administration who wanted to seek better ties with China to “deep six” consideration of new major arms sales to Taiwan from those first offered in 2001.

The reason Obama continues to ignore Taiwan’s request for the F-16s has nothing to do with relations between the countries two presidents. If anything, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has been fully in sync with the approach the Obama administration wants Taiwan to take when it comes to relations with China.

The problem in this instance is that the Obama team came into office with a vision of creating a wholly new relationship with China, one in which the US would welcome its rise and upon which a much deeper, long lasting strategic relationship could be built.

Obama says: “The relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century, which makes it as important as any bilateral relationship in the world.”

As such, the last thing his administration was going to do was commit itself to a major arms deal that might disrupt those ties.

To its credit, Taiwan’s government has not given up trying. Time and again, the legislature, defense officials and Ma have made it clear that they are still interested in acquiring F-16s.

As China’s air force continues to replace relatively old aircraft with modern fighters and fighter-bombers with advanced capabilities, Taiwan has every reason to push ahead with these arms purchases.

At the same time, Taiwan’s own air force has grown increasingly long in the tooth. Still on the books are US-made F-5s, French-made Mirage 2000s, Taiwan-produced Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDFs), and an earlier batch of F-16s. The F-5s date from the 1960s and 1970s, and are used mostly for training.

Meanwhile the Mirages, acquired in the early 1990s, have been difficult to keep in the air. Similarly, the IDFs are nearly two decades old and the F-16s only slightly newer. With the exception of the F-16s, none of the other jets are in the same league as China’s newly acquired fighters and, from operational use, even the 145 F-16s are wearing out.

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