Last week’s surprise announcement by US President Barack Obama’s administration that it would give “serious consideration” to the possibility of selling F-16C/D combat aircraft to Taiwan was cause for cautious optimism. However, while it may be welcome in defense circles, the timing could give President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) a major headache as his inauguration day approaches.
Two administrations — that of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and Ma’s — have since 2006 made repeated, yet unsuccessful, attempts to acquire 66 of the much-needed F-16C/Ds to bring back some balance in air power in the Taiwan Strait. Through a bureaucratic sleight of hand, the White House, weary of complicating its relationship with Beijing, managed to avoid having to make a decision by pretending that Taipei had yet to submit a Letter of Request (LoR) for the aircraft. The reality is that officials in the administrations of both former US president George W. Bush and Obama made it impossible for Taiwan to submit an LoR.
This diplomatic charade made it feasible for Ma, who since 2008 has attempted to avoid angering Beijing — as the F-16 sale certainly would — to make repeated public requests for the aircraft, while knowing that such calls were unlikely to bring any change in the “status quo.”
However, the context in which those calls are being made appears to have changed, which is the result of several factors, from the US having entered another electoral season to Washington’s decision to focus more on Asia amid its so-called “pivot.”
Obama, who is seeking re-election, has often been accused of being soft on China. Allowing the long-delayed sale of F-16s to Taipei, which in and of itself would be insufficient to ensure Taiwan can maintain air superiority against China, could be a means for him to silence his detractors while creating jobs in Texas, an important state in the election. As former US deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz has told this paper, this would not be the first time that a major arms sale to Taiwan derived, if only partly, from a US presidential election. The initial F-16A/Bs acquired by Taiwan in the early 1990s were, in his opinion, such a case.
This new context puts Ma in a quandary. While the Ministry of National Defense maintains it is keen on procuring the F-16C/Ds (with plans being floated by at least one representative in Washington to request just 44 aircraft), political considerations at the top could add some friction.
Ma will be watched closely by Beijing during his inauguration on May 20, and his second term will likely be marked by intensifying pressure by the Chinese Communist Party to enter political negotiations. Starting his second term by acquiring the F-16s — a “red line” that ought not to be crossed, Beijing has said — might appear an ominous start for Ma.
Conversely, delaying the submission of an LoR, or dismissing this opportunity altogether for cost or political considerations, could cost Ma dearly domestically, as doing so would be a huge loss of face for a president who claims he remains committed to Taiwan’s security and sovereignty. Not seizing the opportunity to finally obtain the F-16s, after years of claiming that he wanted them, would make Ma’s pleas sound like they were fraudulent all along.
The door has been opened a crack; let us see whether Ma, who has painted himself into a corner on this issue, as he has on many others, will dare to walk in.