“We are so disappointed in the United States,” a Taiwanese defense official said over the weekend, reacting to confirmation that Taipei would not be sold the F-16C/D aircraft it has been seeking from the US since 2007.
While the sense of disappointment with Washington is perfectly understandable, another actor in the saga deserves equal condemnation, if not more: the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). It was the KMT, enjoying a majority in the legislature during then--president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration, that blocked the budgets that would have allowed Taiwan to continue modernizing its armed forces.
Two possible scenarios present themselves here. Either the KMT undermined Taiwan’s defense apparatus as part of a plan to demonstrate, when it regained office in 2008, that it was stronger on defense than its predecessor, only to be caught wrong-footed when the backlog reached more than US$12 billion. Or it knew all along that this would happen and proceeded by orchestrating a gradual erosion of the nation’s deterrent capability.
Either way, the end result is the same. Taiwan today finds itself in a very difficult position when it comes to its ability to defend itself against aggression from China.
Try as it might to signal strength and determination by talking about Taiwan’s new “aircraft carrier killer,” the fact is, advanced fighter aircraft remain a key component of national defense. Now that the Air Force will not be getting the 66 F-16C/Ds — which were intended to replace F-5s and Mirage 2000s that need to be decommissioned — not only will the force not be comprised of more modern aircraft, but it will have to be reduced in size, unless the nearly obsolete aircraft are kept in service.
When it comes to countering a Chinese attack, both qualitative and quantitative elements in the armed forces are important. As the opening round of a Chinese invasion would likely involve a missile attack against the country’s air bases, fewer aircraft to start with means fewer will survive an attack and be available for operations over the Taiwan Strait.
On the qualitative side, rumors that only one of the two wings of ageing F-16A/Bs are to be modernized also means that nearly half of what remains of the nation’s most advanced combat aircraft will very soon fall far behind the new models of aircraft being developed and deployed by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). By some accounts, the PLAAF could have close to 1,000 3+, 4th and 4+ generation fighters and up to two 5th generation fighters entering production.
For the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) inept handling of the arms sales issue presents an opportunity as the two parties head into January’s presidential and legislative elections. This will be a chance for DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her advisers to show that Ma’s “flexible” China policy and claim to better ties with the US have failed miserably. This will require more than recrimination, however, and the DPP camp will have to come up with viable alternatives for national defense, or a proposed change in approach with Washington.
Conversely, if the second scenario — that of a planned weakening of the military by the KMT — applies, this new situation could also provide the KMT with ammunition against the DPP. It could claim that because of US intransigence, a weakened Taiwan would be at greater risk under the DPP and that Taipei is left with little choice but to seek even closer relations with Beijing to avoid war.