Mon, Jun 13, 2011 - Page 3 News List

ANALYSIS: Demystifying China’s ‘red line’ on the F-16s

SABER RATTLING?China has warned the US about selling the fighters to Taiwan, but experts question the bite behind Beijing’s bark and history also tells a different story

By J. Michael Cole  /  Staff Reporter

Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington, said China would likely respond by intensifying many of the existing behaviors and trends that have long justified weapon sales to Taiwan.

“The immediate goal [for China] would be to portray the US as the ‘military aggressor,’” he said.

As for signaling its displeasure to Taiwan, Beijing would likely raise the level of Chinese public awareness of Taiwan-related war preparations, as well as increase media attention to new weapons, exercises and mobilization, Fisher said.

LONG-DISTANCE THREAT

However, Beijing’s strategy appears to center far more on threatening punishment to the distant enemy in Washington than the proximate one in Taipei.

“China has never taken punitive actions against Taiwan in the past for purchasing arms from the US,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Chinese consider it to be a US-China issue and a mistaken American policy.”

If past behavior is any guide, Beijing would probably not punish Taipei over an F-16 release, and could in fact react by intensifying cross-strait negotiations. Part of what motivates Beijing to do so is the recognition that arms sales are about far more than the delivery of weaponry — in fact, the weapons are not even the main issue.

Fu Mei (梅復興), director of the US-based Taiwan Security Analysis Center, said China’s real problem with the F-16C/D sale is that it represents continued US political support and de facto, if not almost de jure, recognition of Taipei as a legitimate and independent political entity.

“This is precisely the reason why Taipei wants the F-16C/D sale,” Mei said. “Besides the superficial justification that new F-16C/Ds are needed to replace aging equipment and maintain a minimal level of defense capability — which we’re not even sure [President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九)] team actually believes in — the Ma administration is pursuing this mainly for two reasons: Ma wants to be able to produce credentials that show he is not weak on defense in the run-up to the presidential election … [and] in anticipation of having to deal with the issue of Beijing’s increasingly impatient pressure for political dialogue in his second term, Ma desperately needs to start hoarding his bargaining chips, and overt symbols of US support for Taipei are considered highly desirable.”

“That is why Beijing has been, principally through private channels, intimating to Washington that an F-16C/D sale would trip a red line,” Mei said, drawing attention to a warning by PLA Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde (陳炳德) during his visit to the US last month.

ONLY TARGET

As to why the new F-16s are the object of China’s red line, the answer is very simple, another defense expert said: It is the only defense procurement item of note on the table, not because Beijing fears they would dramatically alter the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait.

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