No extra cost for F-16 refit: US official

‘ROBUST PACE’::The US is committed to Taiwan’s F-16 refit, the US deputy secretary of state for East Asia said, amid criticism that the US is pandering to China’s whims

By William Lowther  /  Staff reporter in Washington

Sun, Mar 16, 2014 - Page 1

A senior US government official pledged on Friday that the refitting and upgrading of Taiwan’s F-16 jets would proceed as planned, with no extra costs to the nation.

Following a US Air Force budget decision not to refit 300 US F-16s, there had been widespread speculation that the price of the Taiwan deal would increase so much that it might no longer be possible to go ahead with it.

Yet, when congressmen grilled US Deputy Secretary of State for East Asia Kin Moy on the issue during a hearing of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee — held to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the US’ adoption of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) — he offered a firm reassurance.

Moy said he was aware of deep concerns about the future of Taiwan’s F-16 upgrade program.

He said US Air Force funding would continue through this year and that the end of such funding next year would “not have significant impact” on the Taiwan program.

The US was committed to Taiwan’s F-16 refit, he said.

It was the first time that the administration of US President Barack Obama has publicly responded to questions about the future of Taiwan’s F-16s.

“I am concerned about the decision of the US Air Force not to fund the so-called ‘CAPES’ program in next year’s budget that would have upgraded the avionics system of F-16 fighter jets, including Taiwan’s F-16s,” the committee’s Eliot Engel said.

“The Taiwan Ministry of Defense now faces a tough decision on how to move forward with the upgrade of its fighters at a reasonable cost — an upgrade that it desperately needs,” Engel said.

The US needed to maintain a “robust pace” of arms sales to Taiwan, Representative Gerald Connolly said.

He reminded the committee that the last notification of a major sale was in September 2011, when the administration agreed to upgrade Taiwan’s 145 F-16A/Bs at a cost of US$5.3 billion.

“The lack of a major notification since then is troubling,” Connolly said.

Engel said the US Air Force decision not to proceed with F-16 refits “made no sense.”

“When it comes to Taiwan there is a sort of undercurrent that we feel. We bend over backwards not to upset the sensitivities of the Beijing regime,” he said, adding that the decision not to refit the US F-16s did not seem to have any policy purpose other than to placate Beijing.

Moy said that he understood the concerns and would relay them to the US Air Force.

He said he wanted to emphasize that improvements in the US’ bilateral relationship with China did not come at Taiwan’s expense.

“It’s absolutely not at the expense of our strong relationship with Taiwan,” he said.

Committee chairman Ed Royce said that Taiwan needed continuous US support in order to maintain a credible deterrence.

“I reluctantly submit that we are not doing enough to meet the spirit of the TRA — we need to do more,” Royce said.

Congress members from both parties strongly supported Taiwan’s membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement.

“By working to include Taiwan in a high-quality, multilateral trade agreement, the US would be helping to preserve Taiwan’s ability to do business internationally,” Royce said.

“I strongly urge the administration to support Taiwan’s inclusion in the TPP,” he said.

Moy said Washington was considering Taiwan’s interest in restarting exploratory talks for a bilateral investment agreement and welcomed Taiwan’s interest in the TPP.

“The US-Taiwan relationship, though unofficial, has never been stronger than it is today,” Moy said.

Pressed hard by committee members on whether the Obama administration wanted Taiwan in the TPP, Moy said it was too early to make hard decisions.

He refused to go further than to say that the administration welcomed Taiwan’s interest and would continue to take TPP negotiations “one step at a time.”

The hearing turned testy at times, with committee members giving Moy a hard time, cutting short his answers to questions and peppering him with implied criticism of the Obama administration.

Relations between the US and Taiwan were at a “critical juncture,” Republican and former chairman of the committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said.

She said there had been a “feeble response” by the US Department of State to Chinese aggression and the people of Taiwan had every reason to fear and worry about the future of their country, and question both the resolve and commitment of the US.

“It’s tragic,” she said. “There’s no better time to reaffirm, to clarify and to strengthen relations with our democratic ally and strong friend Taiwan.”

Yet, instead of recommitting to Taiwan, Ros-Lehtinen said, the US Department of State was doing everything it could not to provoke China.

“That seems to be our policy with Taiwan — don’t provoke China,” she said.

She asked what the Obama administration’s policy toward Taiwan really was, “other than ‘don’t make China mad.’”

Moy said the Taiwan policy was not founded on “don’t make China mad” and that the US had a strong record of support for Taiwan.

Democrat Brad Sherman raised the issue of the incarceration of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and said: “One indication that a democracy is not working well is when a former president is in jail.”

Moy said the Obama administration believed that Chen’s trial had been fair and transparent, adding that the US wanted Taiwan to review Chen’s medical condition, but that there was no specific US policy on Chen.

Republican Steve Chabot said Chen had been in jail for about five years and that his health had deteriorated so much that medical parole was now the logical conclusion for what should be done.

He asked Moy if the US administration had a policy on Chen.

“We have confidence in Taiwan’s fairness and impartiality,” Moy said.

Closing the hearing, Royce said: “There is tremendous bipartisan support for Taiwan... It is my sincere hope that the administration will take a more proactive stance on Taiwan,” he added.