President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration must demonstrate to the US that it is serious about purchasing F-16C/D aircraft to boost Taiwan’s air defense capabilities and to proactively engage in regional discussions about the South China Sea dispute, former government officials and academics told a think tank forum yesterday.
About two months before the US is expected to announce its decision on Taiwan’s request to buy 66 F-16C/Ds, panelists at a forum organized by the Taiwan Brain Trust said Taiwan has not demonstrated enough determination for the US to approve the sale, which Beijing opposes.
While the Ma administration has publicly voiced its desire to buy the planes on 21 occasions since taking office in May 2008, it has failed to maintain defense budgets above 3 percent of GDP, despite one of Ma’s main campaign promises, or to budget for the 66 planes next year, former minister of national defense Michael Tsai (蔡明憲) said.
This sends a signal that Taipei is not “serious enough,” Tsai said, adding that he was not optimistic about an announcement Washington has scheduled for Oct. 1, when many analysts believe it will green-light an upgrade program for Taiwan’s 144 aging F-16A/B fleet while mothballing the F-16C/Ds request.
The order, if approved, would create 15,000 jobs at the F-16 -production line in Texas and mean billions of dollars for the US economy, but Washington will also weigh the pros and cons of the deal’s impact on its relations with Beijing, he said.
“There is still time left. The Ma administration should send a strong message through the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office [TECRO], Taiwan’s representative office in Washington, and the American Institute in Taiwan, as well as sending a budget plan to the legislature immediately to show the US that it is serious about the procurement,” Tsai said.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration began discussing a F-16C/D purchase with the Pentagon in 2005, when then-US president George W. Bush and the Department of Defense tended to favor the deal, provided Taiwan had the budget, Tsai said.
However, the US Department of State had second thoughts because of China’s role in assisting the US in Afghanistan and over efforts to limit North Korea’s nuclear program, he said, while Washington’s ties with Taipei worsened during the last half of former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) second term.
Bush wanted to complete the arms package, which included six PAC-3 air defense systems, eight diesel-electric submarines and 12 P-3C marine patrol aircraft before putting the F-16C/Ds on the agenda, said Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), who served as representative to Washington from 2007 to 2008.
Citing a Washington Times -report on Tuesday that said TECRO “has not lobbied very strongly for new F-16s or the upgrades of old jets,” Wu said the story “carried some weight” because “traditionally, the newspaper has been a channel for US officials to send messages to Taiwan.”
“Rhetoric is not good enough for the US. The US will also monitor what you have done and what you are doing,” Wu said.
Chang Kuo-cheng (張國城), a senior councilor at Taiwan Thinktank and former secretary of the deputy minister of national defense, said the US was unlikely to approve the sale because of its complex relations with China.
“More than anything else, the US is not likely to approve the sale on Oct. 1 — the People’s Republic of China’s national day,” Chang said.
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