Sat, Sep 24, 2011 - Page 3 News List

ANALYSIS: US ‘no’ on arms sale seen as sign of China’s clout

SHIFTING POWERWashington’s decision has been described as a slap in the face to a strong ally and is seen as an indication of China’s economic leverage over the US

By Peter Enav  /  AP, TAIPEI

A US decision not to sell Taiwan new F-16C/D fighter jets is being seen by many US allies in Asia as a sign of China’s growing clout.

The pre-eminent military power in East Asia for 50 years, the US has explicitly and implicitly provided a security umbrella for countries from Singapore to Japan, helping to keep the peace that has fostered stunning economic growth.

While few of these allies believe the US is lessening its commitment to the region, they still see Washington’s refusal to make the F-16C/D aircraft sale, which was made public on Wednesday, as showing a new deference to Chinese interests.

China is a “big factor ... that can’t be discounted,” Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said. “All things are always considered in a decision and China is a world player now.”

The top US diplomat for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, publicly confirmed in New York on Wednesday that the administration of US President Barack Obama will upgrade Taiwan’s existing fleet of F-16A/Bs, postponing for now the sale of the new models that Taipei sought.

The decision brought a swift, angry denunciation from Beijing, where Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) summoned US Ambassador Gary Locke to warn that exchanges between the militaries, security cooperation and overall ties will suffer.

After reducing its footprint in East Asia during the administration of former US president George W. Bush, the US began pushing back last year. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered strong support to Asian allies in response to their unease about a more assertive Chinese naval posture in the South China Sea, and the US military conducted high-profile drills with Japan and South Korea.

However, doubts about US staying power in the region persist, and Washington’s refusal to sell the new F-16C/Ds to Taiwan could serve to deepen them.

Admittedly, Taiwan is not a typical case when it comes to security assistance from the US and most other countries, but Taiwan’s defense ties with the US still run deep.

Taiwan hosted US troops for decades under the terms of a security pact that lapsed only after the US shifted its recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. And since then, Washington has remained bound by a Congressional mandate to sell Taiwan weapons to help defend itself against the attack that China threatens if Taipei moves to make its de facto independence permanent.

The complexity of this relationship helps explain the intense Washington reaction that was engendered by the Obama -administration’s decision on the fighter planes, which denied Taiwan the 66 new F-16C/Ds it long coveted, while permitting it a series of upgrades on its existing fleet of F-16A/Bs.

Supporters of the decision regarded it as a Solomonic compromise, taking account of Taiwan’s defense needs — particularly its growing air power gap with China — while also safeguarding the integrity of the US’ increasingly important relationship with Beijing.

However, critics blasted the decision as a sellout of a democratic bastion and long-standing security partner, and a move that could even rattle Asian partners’ confidence in US commitments.

Even before news of the decision became final, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, where the Lockheed Martin plant that would have built the new F-16C/Ds is located, described it as a slap in the face to a strong ally, and Howard Berman, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, called it a “half-measure.”

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