The latest US arms sale to Taiwan reflected Washington’s strategic thinking on cross-strait relations and the Asian region, to which Taipei should respond by fine-tuning its security-related policies to protect its national interests, analysts said.
As expected, US President Barack Obama announced on Sept. 21 that the US would help Taiwan upgrade its existing fleet of F-16A/B aircraft — but would not sell the country the sophisticated F-16C/Ds that it has requested since 2006.
“It was the use of a ‘balanced strategy’ approach by which the US wished to retain China’s cooperation on major regional and international issues while not reneging on its commitment to Taiwan stipulated in the Taiwan Relations Act,” Tamkang University associate professor Shih Cheng-chuan (施正權) said.
The purpose was to exert an influence on changing cross-strait relations so that it does not evolve into a situation unfavorable to the US in Asia, Shih said.
Shih said he disagreed with the analogy that upgrading the F-16A/Bs was like “putting Band-Aids on a wound” because the items included in the retrofit package can significantly enhance the deterrence capability of the fleet, but said the sale was “more symbolic than substantial” considering the cross-strait military imbalance.
China won its wrangle with the US over arms sale to Taiwan this time around by having F-16C/Ds, which have a longer range and more powerful ground attack capability, left out of the deal, but the arms sale implied that, “for the US, Taiwan remains in a strategically important position,” Shih said.
“As far as cross-strait relations are concerned, the US does not see [it being] in its interest that Taiwan and China move toward establishing military confidence-building mechanisms or unification down the road and that Taiwan collaborates with China on ‘traditional territorial waters’” in the controversial South China Sea and Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), he said.
Beyond that, on a regional level, the US arms sale to Taiwan is symbolic of its security commitment to Asia, which could have a certain impact on the way its allies view the US across the Asia-Pacific -region, Shih added.
Lin Chong-pin (林中斌), a professor at Tamkang University and a former deputy defense minister, said Taiwan needs to grasp the “big picture” — Chinese influence is rising while that of the US is declining — behind the US decision concerning arms sales to Taiwan.
“At least one US senator has said that Washington in a way kowtowed to Beijing pressure. [But] in comparison to our fear that even an upgrade would not be granted, the deal was good news. The ‘big picture,’ however, is a new reality we have to face,” Lin said.
The deferral of a decision on the F-16C/Ds, the sale of which China has long considered a “red line” that Washington must not cross, has caused some observers to question whether the US still adheres to one of 1982’s “Six Assurances” to Taiwan — that it would not consult China on its arms decisions involving Taiwan.
Lin said he had no information on whether any prior US-China consultation was held.
However, he said that “this time around, the strength of the protest from Beijing so far was not as high as what we saw at the end of January last year [when the US announced a US$6.4 billion arms package to Taiwan]. The whole thing suggested that Washington, Beijing and Taipei in a way all have consulted with each other.”
In the face of what he called “irreversible” reality across the Strait, Lin suggested that Taiwan should use a “two-pronged” policy to protect its national interests.
“One policy is engagement with China, because we need China for economic development and growth. The other policy is deterrence. We should have sufficient arms to make Beijing decision-makers think twice before they launch military operations against Taiwan. Those two policies should go hand in hand,” Lin said.
It is “regrettable” that both the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) “have not taken a balanced approach. One party takes one, and the other party takes another,” Lin added.
Restating his longstanding contention that Taiwan needs to develop “asymmetrical warfare,” Lin said the capability becomes especially necessary for the country when it encounters difficulties acquiring weapons.
“We should display our deterrence capabilities annually so that Beijing would see it. At the same time, we should consult with Washington on what we have talked about with Beijing. We should also keep talking with Beijing on what we have been doing with Washington,” he said.
As a small country facing two big powers, Lin said, the best way for Taiwan to position itself is “right in between,” like countries such as Japan, Vietnam, Philippines and India, which all use two-handed policy approaches to talk to Beijing and Washington at the same time despite harboring suspicions about China.
Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University, said that the US has factored in the impact of the Taiwan arms sales on Beijing’s help in major global issues was “understandable” at a time when pressure from China against the sale of F-16C/Ds was “phenomenal.”
“However, it was also worrisome. When the US is overly concerned about China’s reaction to its policy of arms sales to Taiwan, it will only embolden China’s strategic ambitions further on all fronts, especially on the Taiwan issue,” Wu said.
Because China successfully blocked the sale of F-16C/Ds this time, the opposition from China the US will meet in its further deliberations on arms sales to Taiwan “will only get greater,” Wu added.
On Taiwan’s part, the situation requires the government to showcase its determination on self-defense, which has been questioned by US policymakers because of a string of events over the years, Wu said.
These include the KMT holding a majority in the legislature, boycotting the defense budget under the former DPP administration, resulting in a delay of over seven years in approving the budget in 2008 for an arms package that former US president George W. Bush had agreed to in 2001, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) failing to spend 3 percent of GDP on defense, as he promised during his presidential election campaign, and the Ma administration this year earmarking only NT$2 million (US$65,638) for the procurement of F-16C/Ds, Wu said.
In 2006, the then-DPP government proposed procuring 66 F-16C/Ds over eight years for an estimated NT$160 billion, with NT$16 billion allotted in the budget for fiscal 2007 as the first installment for the project.
The NT$16 billion budget was passed by the legislature, but frozen after the KMT demanded the government obtain US approval by October to unfreeze the budget.
Wu, who was then Taiwan’s representative to the US, said the Pentagon was very forthcoming in granting the sale of F-16C/Ds to Taiwan in spite of Chinese opposition, but the proposal was not cleared by the White House.
Bush was not convinced then that Taiwan needed a new package of F-16C/Ds when the budget for the 2001 arms package was still stalled in the legislature, Wu said.
The case showed that the country’s defense spending and determination to defend itself could be factors that affect decisions about US arms sales to Taiwan, he said.
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