US President Barack Obama’s administration is weighing fresh arms sales to Taipei as part of a sweeping effort to deter any Chinese attack on Taiwan, administration officials told the US Congress on Tuesday.
Such supplies would be on top of plans sent to Congress on Sept. 21 to sell Taiwan US$5.85 billion in new hardware and defense services, including upgrades for its 145 F-16A/B aircraft, bought in 1992.
Beijing deems arms sales to Taiwan a grave interference in its domestic affairs and the biggest obstacle to improved relations between the world’s two largest economies.
“We are consulting with Taiwan on a full range of capabilities, so they’re aware of the threat and they can undertake the defensive preparations,” US acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Peter Lavoy said before a House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on “Why Taiwan Matters.”
Lavoy declined to discuss details of a potential follow-up sale, but he said the administration was still considering Taipei’s five-year-old request for 66 F-16C/Ds, valued at US$8.3 billion, in addition to the pending upgrade of its F-16A/Bs.
Beijing’s sustained investment in armed forces continues to shift the military balance in its favor in the Taiwan Strait, he said.
China has deployed as many as 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles as well as growing numbers of medium-range ballistic missiles and land-attack cruise missiles targeting Taiwan, Lavoy said.
“The F-16 retrofit reflects a smart defense policy that provides real and immediate contributions to Taiwan’s security. The retrofitted F-16A/Bs will provide a more reliable, survivable and capable aircraft — comparable to the F-16C/D, but at a lower cost,” he said.
The US would continue to build military-to-military ties with Taiwan, Lavoy said, “to ensure Taiwan has the ability to defend itself today and in the future.”
Despite harsh criticism from committee members, administration officials present at the hearing refused to give ground and insisted they were acting in Taiwan’s best interests.
Time and again, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell has “categorically” denied that China had been consulted or that opposition to the sale from Beijing had played any role in the final decision.
House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen opened the two-hour hearing by declaring that Taiwan had been neglected by the White House.
She said the Obama administration had “beaten a steady retreat” from its obligations and had not provided sufficient means for Taiwan’s defense.
“The decision not to sell Taiwan the next generation of F-16 fighters is a decision with potentially grave repercussions. Why must we appear so timid before Beijing?” Ros-Lehtinen asked.
“And what message does such timidity, in the face of Beijing’s growing belligerence, send to our treaty allies in the Asia-Pacific region, specifically Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia?” she asked.
She accused the administration of “cozying up to Beijing with a wink and a nod” on arms sales to Taiwan.
“Is it customary to give the clearly potential adversary the game plan for the defense of a friend and strategic partner?” she asked. “Isn’t that like telling the fox the location of each chicken in the henhouse?”
“Taiwan needs our help. China is on the march in Asia and its primary target remains democratic Taiwan,” she said. “Why must Taiwan depend on rickety old aircraft, provided almost 20 years ago, to face state-of-the-art Chinese fighters? ... And Taiwan equally needs diesel[-electric] submarines to protect her territorial waters — and she needs them now.”
The chairman called for a reinvigorated policy toward Taiwan, including senior-level official visits, a free-trade agreement and, as soon as all homeland security criteria are met, early admission to the US’ visa-waiver program.
Campbell said that despite improvements in cross-strait relations, there was still a significant risk of instability and conflict.
He acknowledged that some believe the administration’s efforts to build a “positive, cooperative and comprehensive” relationship with China would come at the expense of Taiwan.
“We categorically reject this assertion,” he said. “Positive and constructive relations with China are not only consistent with our robust and diverse relationship with Taiwan, they are also mutually supporting.”
With the latest US arms sales to Taiwan — especially the proposed upgrading of Taiwan’s aging fleet of F-16A/B jets — he insisted that Taiwan would be able to “resist intimidation and coercion, and engage with the mainland with continued confidence.”
Nevertheless, he admitted that Washington had “strong concerns” about Chinese military modernization and deployments.
The buildup of missiles targeting Taiwan “contradict Beijing’s stated commitment to the peaceful handling of cross-strait relations,” he said, adding that China needed to carefully consider whether its vast military capabilities aimed at Taiwan served to build trust.
Lavoy said Beijing’s long-term strategy seemed to be to use political, diplomatic, economic and cultural levers to pursue unification with Taiwan, while building the military capability to attack it.
“Beijing appears prepared to defer the use of force for as long as it believes long-term unification remains possible,” he said.
Republican Representative Dan Burton said the US continues to “piddle around,” while not giving Taiwan the support it needs to defend itself. He said it was “totally unacceptable” for the Obama administration to refuse to sell Taiwan the F-16C/Ds and diesel-electric submarines it needed.
Representative after representative condemned the administration for not selling the long-requested and “desperately needed” F-16C/Ds and submarines.
Quoting Defense News and the Taipei Times, Ros-Lehtinen said there were concerns that senior administration officials had discussed arms sales to Taiwan with China prior to deciding not to sell the F-16C/Ds.
Campbell said he had been in hundreds of meetings with Chinese officials and that he had “never ever” heard a US official give China notice of arms sales to Taiwan.
Republican Representative Bill Johnson asked Campbell about a recent report in the Financial Times that a senior administration official had made unflattering remarks about Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), making it appear as if the US administration was interfering in Taiwan’s democratic elections.
Campbell pledged the US would not interfere in any way in the upcoming elections in Taiwan, that the US did not take sides and that the US would work closely with whoever was elected.
Johnson said that while he hoped this was the case, the administration appeared so keen to please China that it was taking its talking points from Beijing.
While the hearing focused on arms sales, Campbell also indicated that agreement could be near on including Taiwan in the visa-waiver program.
Campbell asked committee members to “underscore” the importance — when they talked with Taiwanese officials — of Taipei taking the necessary steps to end the beef impasse.
He said the administration had been “disappointed” with the lack of progress on the beef issue.
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