Taiwan must weigh its options

By Gary Schmitt  / 

Sun, Feb 20, 2011 - Page 8

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.

There are also good reasons to want new F-16s. More than 4,000 of the planes have been built and sold not only in the US, but abroad as well, making it one of the best fighters ever built. It is a multi-role aircraft that can engage in both air-to-air combat and air-to-ground missions, and it remains one of the most highly maneuverable fighters to this day.

However, if the US is not going to sell the F-16s to Taiwan (or do so anytime soon), then it is imperative that Taiwan begin to look elsewhere for replacement jets if it does not want the air balance across the Taiwan Strait to deteriorate even further than it already has.

One possible option is Sweden’s Gripen. Like the F-16, the Saab-built jet is a fourth-generation aircraft. It was also initially designed for air defense, but has the evolved into an first-rate all-weather, multi-mission capable plane. Its top-end speed is comparable with other modern jets, like the F-18 or French Rafale. Moreover, the combination of the Gripen’s aerodynamic design and light weight give it superior maneuverability, along with shorter runway needs. Although having another plane in Taiwan’s air fleet that is not of US origin will complicate training and logistics somewhat, this is a problem Taiwan’s air force has been dealing with for years now anyway.

The unanswered question of course is would Sweden sell the Gripen to Taiwan? There is no way to answer that question for sure, until the government asks, but two things point to a favorable response. The first is that Sweden wants to continue to have its own military aviation industry. However, as things stand now, that is becoming increasingly difficult in the absence of overseas sales of the Gripen — and sales that have been slow to come.

Second, the leverage the Chinese hold over countries by threatening economic ties, is not nearly as significant in Sweden’s case as its exports to, and imports from, China are both less than 4 percent of total trade. Moreover, Swedes typically don’t like to be threatened or bullied.

Finally, by looking at alternative fighters, Taiwan can offer a sharp reminder to those outside the Obama administration — such as members of Congress from Texas where the F-16s are built — that delays in selling F-16s to Taiwan could cost the US jobs and profits at a time when the domestic economy could use all the help it can get. Indeed, if India selects a jet other than the F-16 in its bid to acquire a new multi-role fighter and the US government continues to delay the sale to Taiwan, then the production line for the F-16 will end soon. Simply put, Taiwan needs to up the pressure on Washington to make a decision.

Experience suggests that looking around for someone else to date might sometimes be the only way to get an old girlfriend’s attention.

Gary Schmitt is director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Program on Advanced Strategic Studies.