The US Congress may be preparing to step up the pressure once again in an effort to persuade US President Barack Obama to sell advanced F-16C/D aircraft to Taiwan.
CIA Director Leon Panetta, the secretary of defense designate, was expected to be questioned on the potential sale during his nomination hearing later this week.
A US Senate vote to confirm the nomination of William Burns as US undersecretary of state for policy could be held up in an attempt to force Obama to make a decision.
The Washington Times reported that a senior Senate aide close to the issue believed there is a sense on Capitol Hill that the administration wants Congress to push the Pentagon to go ahead with the sale as a way of limiting fallout from China.
While details of the tactic are not spelled out, it seems the administration may believe that if responsibility for the sale falls on Congress rather than Obama, China will modify its reaction.
However, Beijing is certain to vigorously protest at any new arms sales to Taiwan and might break off its recently negotiated military-to-military contacts with the US.
Obama and his top advisers believe these contacts to be a vital safety valve that could prevent a future armed clash.
The Washington Times quoted US Senator John Cornyn, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as saying the shifting military balance across the Taiwan Strait is increasing the danger of a conflict that could involve the US.
“While the administration dithers on Taiwan’s request for F-16s, evidence continues to mount that what Taiwan desperately needs to restore the cross-strait balance and regain the ability to defend its own airspace is new fighter aircraft to bolster an air force that is borderline obsolete,” Cornyn said.
“The repercussions of a rising and potentially aggressive China, able to dominate the airspace over Taiwan, demands the attention of our military planners, government officials and members of Congress because it opens the door for China to use force against Taiwan,” he said.
Defense officials quoted by the Washington Times said the White House has told Taiwan not to formally request new aircraft and, instead, it is offering the interim step of a US$4 billion package of arms and equipment to upgrade Taiwan’s 145 F-16A/Bs purchased in 1992.
That package, the Washington Times said, has been held up for months by the US Department of State.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is delaying the release of two reports to Congress on air power across the Strait and China’s overall military power.
On May 26, a bipartisan mix of 45 senators wrote to the White House expressing “serious concerns about the military imbalance in the Taiwan Strait” and urged the sale of the 66 F-16C/Ds as requested by Taipei.
One estimate said the F-16 sale would generate US$8.7 billion for contractors and subcontractors in 44 states and create more than 87,664 jobs.