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

However, the fear that the sale of F-16s would derail cross-strait rapprochement is such that, on some occasions, officials from the Taiwanese side have called for the plan to be dropped.

In 2008, Ma’s future National Security Council secretary-general Su Chi (蘇起) reportedly asked the US side (all the way up to former US vice president Dick Cheney) not to go ahead with the F-16 sale, as cross-strait talks were being planned for later that year, thus sending mixed signals about the Ma administration’s commitment to the sale.

However, if Beijing’s threats fail and Washington proceeds with foreign military sales to Taiwan, contrary to what Su and others fear, all the evidence points to Beijing responding by creating the conditions for rapprochement with Taipei to negate the political significance of the sale.


During the past 20 years, three major packages for Taiwan were released by Washington. On all three occasions, relations between Taipei and Beijing, rather than suffering, improved markedly.

The first major package, notified to the US Congress on Sept. 14, 1992, involved the 150 F-16A/Bs that currently constitute the bulk of Taiwan’s fighter fleet, as well as its first Patriot missile firing units. Two months later, in November 1992, the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) held a preparatory meeting in Hong Kong, from which the so-called “1992 consensus” is alleged to have emerged. In April the following year, then-SEF chairman Koo Chen-fu (辜振甫) met then-ARATS chairman Wang Daohan (汪道涵) in Singapore for groundbreaking talks.

On Nov. 4, 2008, ARATS Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) made his first visit to Taiwan, the first in a series of meetings launched after Ma’s inauguration. Almost exactly one month earlier, on Oct. 3, the US announced a US$3.1 billion sale of 330 PAC-3 missiles to Taiwan.

Then, on Jan. 29 last year, the US announced a US$6.4 billion arms package to Taiwan, just three days after the first round of Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) talks. Rather than retaliate against Taipei for the arms sale by scuttling negotiations on a trade pact portrayed as necessary for Taiwan, the following month Beijing confirmed the second round of talks would be held later that month. The ECFA was signed in June last year.

Taiwan, it seems, was able to weather Beijing’s anger over the arms sales, and experts say Washington could too.

“There are precious few voices in China who argue that Beijing should shrug its shoulders, take the high ground and say that it [arms sales] doesn’t matter because cross-strait relations are trending in the right direction,” Glaser said.

“But at the end of the day could the US and China weather the storm? Absolutely,” she added.

Since the 1970s, Beijing has drawn numerous red lines, as with the PAC-3s, a sale some Chinese officials said would mean “war.”

In the end, the US crossed the line and the relationship between the two, despite minor bumps, flourished. As with the F-16s, China dreaded the PAC-3 sale not so much because of the missile defense system’s military effectiveness, but rather that it necessitated linkage with US radar and satellites, which had political significance.

Beijing is too dependent on the stability of the international system and ultimately on the US to be able to retaliate in a manner that would prevent Washington honoring its commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act, a defense expert with years of involvement in arms sales to Taiwan told the Taipei Times on background.

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