The US has announced plans to upgrade Taiwan’s F-16A/B aircraft, but not to sell it F-16C/Ds. Although expected, many people in Taiwan found it difficult to hide their disappointment. However, it is precisely because of Beijing’s fierce opposition to the F-16C/D sale that Taiwan stands to receive many of the systems it has been eyeing for years.
Beijing made a show of anger about the upgrade, but one can imagine that inwardly it is satisfied with the outcome. Indeed, in the US-China-Taiwan scenario, Beijing has apparently walked away with the “second-best” result — preventing the US from selling Taipei the F-16C/Ds.
Fortunately, the US has compensated Taiwan with the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar system capable of simultaneously detecting various types of fighter jets; access to the LINK 16 data system of the US Pacific Command, which allows for coordinated warfare; digital electric attack pods; and AIM-9X sidewinder missiles. It is entirely possible that the US would not have sold Taiwan these weapons had Beijing not raised such vociferous objections against the F-16C/D sale.
Following the announcement, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said Washington would promote safety and stability in the Taiwan Strait, serve as a basis for Taiwan’s security and peace and allow for continued cooperation and dialogue on economic exchanges with China, all of which are in the US’ interests.
Clearly, without the high degree of trust between the US and Taiwan, the former would never have sold Taipei such high-tech weapons systems. In a soon-to-be-published report on the modernization of the Taiwanese air force’s military power, the Pentagon will recommend that Taiwan purchase the F-35B, the short takeoff and vertical landing variant of the F-35 aircraft.
The US’ deliberative process for weapons sales to Taiwan apparently takes a range of factors into account, including the overall Asia-Pacific situation, US “coopetition” with China, Sino-US military exchanges and the situation in the Strait. A change in any of the above could lead the US to amend its decision vis-a-vis weapons sales to Taiwan.
China recently published a white paper emphasizing its six core interests, many of which concern Taiwan. Beijing has not given up its political intention to unify with Taiwan and has been chipping away at Taiwan’s national defense and security.
In the pursuit of its grand strategy, Beijing is going beyond its previous policy of “concealing one’s strengths and biding one’s time,” suggesting it will not be content with playing the role of peacekeeper. This is causing other countries within the Asia-Pacific region to believe that China is inherently expansionist.
There are quite a few ways in which the US and Taiwan are cooperating on the issue of security, weapons sales being but one of them. In order to prevent its Asia-Pacific allies from getting the impression that the US is bowing to pressure from Beijing, Washington should consider adding a F-35B training course for Taiwanese pilots, allowing a technology transfer in the production of F-16C/D fighters and AV-8 Harrier jump jets, augmenting the joint Air-Sea Battle training program and perhaps even helping Taiwan develop the technology to produce diesel-electric submarines.
The past few weeks have demonstrated that the more China has objected to US weapon sales to Taiwan, the more the US was willing to provide Taiwan with a set of defensive weapons systems because of considerations of its overall Asia-Pacific strategy. Beijing may appear to have secured a victory, but it has also caused Taiwanese to be increasingly wary of potential cross-strait political and military talks.
Edward Chen is a professor at Tamkang University’s Graduate Institute of American Studies.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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