A new study from the conservative Heritage Foundation urged US President Barack Obama to sell 66 advanced F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan.
The proposed deal, now under serious consideration by the White House, would almost certainly cause a serious disruption in US-China relations.
The study, titled Meeting Taiwan's Self-Defense Needs, said the sale was essential to maintaining the “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait.
Written by Dean Cheng (成斌), a research fellow at Heritage specializing in Chinese political and security affairs, the study said: “The sale of 66 advanced F-16s will not exactly address the aerial imbalance across the Taiwan Strait, but it would nonetheless improve the situation slightly, especially given the age of the F-5s that they would replace.”
Cheng said that most importantly, the sale would send a political signal to Beijing.
“It would clearly underscore the continuing American interest in the Taiwan Strait situation and make clear that the US will not sacrifice Taiwan in favor of China, be it over global warming or other issues,” the study said.
The Obama administration recently agreed to sell US$6.4 billion in defensive arms to Taiwan, but a longtime request from Taipei for the F-16s was not included.
However, earlier this month a Pentagon report made it abundantly clear that the Taiwanese Air Force was in desperate need of improvement.
As a result of this report, senior administration sources said the possible sale of the F-16s was back on the table. Nevertheless, the same sources cautioned that the sale was by no means certain.
China has strongly objected to the latest US agreement to sell weapons to Taiwan and diplomats have warned that if F-16s were provided, Beijing would launch a major new protest that could end cooperation with Washington on a wide range of issues — from North Korea to trade.
For all the material support that the US can provide directly and indirectly to Taiwan, political support is arguably the most important, the Heritage Foundation study said.
“If Taiwan is to resist PRC [People's Republic of China] pressure, including psychological warfare, it must know that the United States will support it,” the study said.
“Otherwise, on its own, Taiwan will inevitably lose simply because of the asymmetry of arrayed forces, both real and potential,” it said.
“The prospect of China being able to threaten American carrier groups raises the question in some quarters of whether the US would be prepared to risk these platforms on behalf of Taiwan,” Cheng wrote.
“The level of anxiety often expressed in Washington circles over this possibility raises doubts about the level of American commitment. It is important to nip such doubts in the bud before they fundamentally undermine US credibility and degrade Taiwan's security,” he said.
Cheng added that the willingness to sell weapon systems to Taiwan and other US allies, even in the face of PRC opposition, would send a clear signal that US defense policy would support US interests, whatever China's capabilities and reactions.
“Despite improving relations between Beijing and Taipei, the Taiwan Strait situation remains a potential flashpoint for conflict,’ he said. “As long as the relationship between the two sides remains uncertain, it will remain an American interest to help to ensure that neither side will try to alter the status quo.”