Late last month, Wang Yi (王毅), director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, warned the US that selling arms to Taiwan would damage US-China relations. However, US President Barack Obama’s administration reiterated that US policy on arms sales to Taiwan would not change.
With the US presidential elections coming up, Obama is experiencing less support back home, just like President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in Taiwan, which has opened him up to attacks from opponents and interest groups. For example, 181 members of the US Congress signed a protest and blocked the appointment of William Burns as US undersecretary of state for political affairs to demand that US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton make an announcement on US arms sales to Taiwan by Oct. 1, especially the sale of F-16C/D aircraft.
The US, China and Taiwan each have their own plans when it comes to the F-16C/D issue. After having blocked the sale of F-16C/Ds to Taiwan in 2009, we can expect Beijing to continue pressuring Washington.
Washington, however, plans to let US Vice President Joe Biden, who will visit Beijing this month, talk Chinese leaders into accepting upgrades of existing F-16A/B aircraft as an alternative to the sale of F-16C/Ds. This move is against Washington’s “six assurances” to Taiwan, which state that the US will not discuss arms sales to Taiwan with China before their sale, and it shows the Obama administration is worried that US-China military exchanges will break down again, while at the same time it must pay attention to voters at home.
In Taiwan, election worries have made the Ma administration use the Mainland Affairs Council and the Ministry of National Defense as the “bad guys” pushing for the sale of F-16C/D jets and even diesel-electric submarines, making it seem as if the government is raising its hopes, when people with inside knowledge know full well that Ma only wants to upgrade our F-16A/B aircraft as a way of garnering more support in the election.
In the end, all Taiwan is likely to get are these upgrades. That would be a huge blow to both Taiwan-US relations and to the cross-strait military balance. The biggest difference between upgrading the existing F-16A/Bs and buying new F-16C/Ds is that a mere upgrade will mean that the number of fighters will remain the same, which will mean that Taiwan’s air defense capabilities will not increase in quantity.
Furthermore, even if Ma has openly urged the US to sell Taiwan F-16C/Ds 21 times over the past three years, his actions have belied his statements, which made Washington suspicious about his intentions to strengthen Taiwan’s defense capabilities.
Examples of such actions include a substantial lack of funds allocated to the defense budget, sitting around waiting for the US to agree before submitting letters of intent for military procurement, failing to deliver on his campaign promise that national defense spending would be 3 percent of GDP, as well as the recent remarks from a retired general who said that we should not differentiate between the Republic of China Army and the People’s Liberation Army because “we are all China’s army.”
On July 25, the Washington Times quoted an unnamed Obama official who said Taiwan has not lobbied very strongly for the sale of F-16C/D aircraft. The report also said the recent flight by a Chinese bomber that crossed the Taiwan Strait median line shows that Ma’s conciliation policy has been a failure.