Refusing to aid Taiwan is illogical

By Reuben Johnson  / 

Wed, Jul 20, 2011 - Page 8

Observing daily life in Rio de Janeiro, the most famous of Brazilian cities, one is instantly aware that Brazil’s economy is booming and that Rio, in particular, is about to be the scene of two mammoth international sporting events: the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

Brazil feels that it is now reaching its rightful position in the world community — one of the so-called “BRIC nations” — and that the international recognition of Brazil as an up-and-coming nation is an achievement it has largely reached as part of its partnerships with European nations — most specifically France.

Thus, when it comes to modernizing the economy in general and the military in particular, Brazil feels no sense of exclusivity about its relationship with the US. During Brazil’s period of military dictatorship, the nation was under a US embargo forbidding any trade in armaments, putting the Brazilian military in a difficult position.

Even when the embargo was lifted and US firms were free to sell their wares to Brazil, there was resistance to building a closer relationship with Washington on the grounds that US technology export guidelines were far more restrictive than European arms producers and there could always be another US embargo someday.

Not surprisingly, there is not a groundswell to “buying American” when it comes to purchasing new weaponry.

In contrast, Taiwan has never had anything but a positive and enthusiastic attitude about purchasing arms from the US. Its flirtations with European suppliers have proved to be unhappy ones. The air force’s decision to procure Dassault Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft has proven to be an expensive experiment.

The air force is probably going to have to mothball these aircraft because of the excessive costs and other problems associated with obtaining spare, so the focus of the Taiwanese military’s procurements has almost always been very pro-US.

Therefore, as someone who has been writing about the defense industry and arms exports for more than two decades, I find myself asking why the US is pulling out all the stops to sell up to 120 of one of its most advanced combat aircraft, the twin-engine F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, to the Brazilian air force, while at the same time US President Barack Obama’s administration is refusing to sell 66 of the smaller, single-engine and — in some respects — less capable F-16C/D aircraft to Taiwan.

Aside from being one of the US’ oldest and most traditional allies, Taiwan is one of US’ best trading partners. US trade with Taiwan was US$59 billion in 2009, at a time when the world was trying to recover from the fourth quarter 2008 economic crash and trade was in free fall. Last year, Taiwan was the US’ 13th-largest goods export market and the US also buys 50 percent more from Taiwan in most years than it does from Brazil. Clearly, Taiwan is as important to the economic well-being of the US as Brazil, or even more so.

The nature of the proposed sales to Brazil and Taiwan could also not be more different.

Brazilian policymakers are intent on using the purchase of the new fighters as a way to substantially increase the capability of the country’s aerospace industry and provide considerable work in the form of licensed production. Most of the aircraft they want to buy would be assembled in Brazil. Moreover, the Brazilian government would also like to be able to assemble aircraft for sale to other nations as part of the bargain. In other words, there is not a lot for the US aerospace worker to do in the Brazil deal.

Additionally, the long-term plan for Brazil is to utilize the technology transfer it receives from building the fighters to create Brazilian-designed fighters sometime after the year 2019.

The long-term result of the Brazilian contract could allow Brazil to compete with the US in the fighter aircraft market. To be fair, the reality is that this is the way most of the international combat aircraft sales work. The purchasing nation is always asking for a very generous set of commercial off-sets and technology transfer, but viewed through a protectionist lens, it seems that long term the US is willing to give up a lot in order to win this sale in Brazil.

In contrast, Taiwan has no such grandiose ambitions. The country simply wants — and needs — the F-16C/Ds for its defense against an increasingly capable and aggressive Chinese military. The fighters would largely be assembled in the US and would provide a considerable amount of work for US aerospace workers.

A report on the economic impact in the US by the Perryman Group found that “the production of these [F-16C/D] aircraft would involve substantial gains in business activity in hundreds of communities across the US through the manufacture of various parts and equipment.”

The report also estimated that the Taiwan F-16 deal could generate about US$8.7 billion in gross product output, and would sustain more than 87,651 person-years of employment in the US. This means roughly 16,000 annual jobs — direct and indirect — over the life of the deal.

The deal would also yield about US$768 million in US federal tax revenues during the course of the program, as well as about US$593.7 million to various state and local governments. This is all something you would think any administration would want — particularly one staring into an abyss of shrinking tax revenues, 9.2 percent unemployment and anemic job creation numbers heading into an election year.

In addition, without the Taiwanese deal, the F-16 production line could be closed within two years, furloughing thousands of US workers and swelling the already swollen ranks of the unemployed. It would also mean that the only single-engine lightweight fighter aircraft left in production for the US to offer to foreign customers would be the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

The JSF’s stealthy, fifth-generation capabilities are such that it is doubtful that it would ever be offered to Taiwan. China might eventually cool down from an initial (and predictable) acrimonious reaction to an F-16C/D sale to Taiwan, but the backlash from Beijing if Taipei ever took delivery of F-35s would likely verge on thermonuclear.

So, continuing to block the F-16C/D sale and forcing a shutdown of the production line in the US essentially means allowing the Taiwanese air force to wither away and eventually die. It must soon begin to retire aging aircraft and would have nothing to replace them with.

A letter sent by 47 US senators to the White House in May was unequivocal in the consequences of continued intransigence by the administration on this issue.

“Military experts in both Taiwan and the United States have raised concerns that Taiwan is losing the qualitative advantage in defensive arms that has long served as its primary military deterrent against China ... without new fighter aircraft and upgrades to its existing fleet of F-16s, Taiwan will be dangerously exposed to Chinese military threats, aggression and provocation, which pose significant national security implications for the United States,” the letter said.

The scenario that would play out if the US decided to turn its back on Taiwan and bar the F-16C/D sale bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the 1930s in Europe: how the West acquiesced to the Third Reich’s claims on Austria and the Sudetenland — all so it could later push on into the rest of Czechslovakia and eventually all of Eastern Europe and part of the Soviet Union. This is a sad chapter in history — large democracies failing to stand up against totalitarian dictatorships for the sake of smaller democratic nations.

Beijing’s endless, mind-numbing claims that “Taiwan belongs to China” bear an uncomfortable parallel to the famous National Socialist Party mantra that “all the German-speaking people belong in the Reich.”

Not surprisingly — and given their historical familiarity with what happens when dictatorships continue to expand unchecked — the Poles I spoke with when I was in Warsaw this month have no problems drawing the same conclusion.

As far as Taiwan is concerned, they say: “Look at what time is it in history. At this point, 1939 seems not far away for Taipei and all Obama is doing is making a good job of imitating former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain.”

The past century is full of examples of how the failure to head off smaller, territorial conflicts precipitated calamitous outcomes — World War II being the most severe. Standing up for Taiwan’s defense now and authorizing the F-16C/D sale is not just about saving 23 million Taiwanese: It is about laying down a marker that could prevent a far wider and devastating conflict with Taiwan’s communist neighbor.

Reuben Johnson is an aerospace and defence technology writer based in Kiev, Ukraine, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.