Taiwan portrayed US President Barack Obama’s administration on Monday as yielding to China at Taipei’s peril and renewed a push for 66 F-16C/D aircraft.
“These years, China is showing stronger and stronger reaction to US-Taiwan arms sales and that [has] turned your country more wary with arms sales,” Deputy Minister of National Defense Andrew Yang (楊念祖) told an annual US-Taiwan defense industry conference in Virginia that wrapped up yesterday.
The Obama administration informally told US lawmakers on Friday that it would upgrade Taiwan’s 145 existing F-16A/B aircraft, while deferring a request for the more advanced F-16C/Ds.
The F-16 issue underlines the role US arms makers and their political backers play in the sensitive dealings between the world’s two largest economies over Taiwan, the thorniest issue dividing them.
The US government is mandated under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to provide for Taiwan’s defense. No other country is supplying it for fear of angering Beijing.
France and the Netherlands are among countries that have suffered economic and diplomatic retaliation for having armed Taiwan in the past.
Washington has balked since 2006 at releasing the F-16C/D, which carries a more powerful engine, advanced cockpit controls and updated display technology.
Yang said Taiwan’s top military hardware needs were the new fighters plus diesel-electric submarines — transfers that Beijing has suggested it opposes above all other arms supplies to Taiwan to date.
The new planes would replace antiquated F-5s “to maintain air superiority across the Taiwan Strait in the near future,” Yang said in prepared comments distributed to reporters outside the closed-door conference.
Without the new jets, Taiwan’s air force will shrink, it said.
Arms sales advocates argue that Taiwan must maintain strong deterrent and defensive capabilities so it can negotiate with Beijing from a position of strength.
China’s rise was “an opportunity and a threat to Taiwan and all China’s neighbors,” Yang said, calling on the US to provide advanced technologies so Taiwan could become more self-reliant.
Yang said later that he intended no criticism of the Obama administration’s arms sales policies overall.
However, he said the US should “speed up” preparation of diesel-electric submarine design plans and “quickly consider” the five-year-old request for 66 F-16C/Ds.
The Pentagon was represented at the conference by Acting US Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Lavoy. However, “his keynote speech will not be released to the press” at the Pentagon’s insistence, said the US-Taiwan Business Council, which organized the forum that began on Sunday.
Meanwhile, a US official said the upgrade of Taiwan’s F-16A/Bs would provide essentially the same quality as new fighter jets. The official declined to confirm details of the package for Taiwan.
“Assuming the decision is to upgrade F-16A/Bs, they will provide essentially the same quality as new F-16C/D aircraft at a far cheaper price,” the official said in New York.
The Obama administration appears to have been stung by criticism over the proposal to upgrade the aircraft, which was first reported by the Washington Times last week.
The US official sought to dispel any view that Washington was letting down Taiwan.
“First, the US is profoundly committed to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and that commitment remains unwavering. Second, the scale and pace of defense article sales to Taiwan over the past two-and-a-half years is unprecedented,” he said.
US-Taiwan Business Council chairman Paul Wolfowitz, a former US deputy defense secretary and president of the World Bank, said withholding the new F-16C/D models was short-sighted because “you can only keep an old plane flying for so long,” referring to the F-5s.
The F-5s are nearly 40 years old and two of them crashed in Taiwan last week, killing three officers.
“The point is that Taiwan needs more F-16s,” said Dan Blumenthal, a former Pentagon China desk chief now at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank.
In January last year, Obama approved a US$6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan left over from the administration of former US president George W. Bush. In response, China froze military-to-military ties and threatened sanctions against US firms.
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