President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) came into office in 2008 on the promise that he would improve relations with the US, the nation’s most important diplomatic ally, a goal he claimed he had attained as he campaigned for a second term.
Though it denied doing so, Washington in the months leading to the Jan. 14 presidential election acted in a way that supported Ma’s contention, with some officials in US President Barack Obama’s National Security Council sabotaging Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) visit to the US prior to the vote.
That is not to say that Ma’s relations with Washington were always smooth, especially when it came to the US beef controversy, which led directly to the ouster of Ma’s first National Security Council secretary-general, Su Chi (蘇起). However, it can be said that the relationship has been stable overall, following years of shakier ties under the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
All that could be about to change, though, as the Ma administration appears close to committing an about-face that could not but be felt as a transoceanic slap in the face by some of Taiwan’s staunchest supporters in Washington. After more than six years of efforts by two administrations, Taiwan had yet to make much progress in acquiring 66 F-16C/D aircraft it needs to modernize its air force and maintain any hope of balance in the Taiwan Strait — that is, until recently, as members of the US Congress appeared, following months of pressure and high-stakes holdups of White House appointments, to have swayed Obama on the issue.
Closer today than it ever was to finally making some headway on the issue, the logical thing for the Ma administration to do would be to submit another letter of request for the aircraft, a move that could add to the momentum created by the dozens of members of Congress and those who endeavored for years behind the scenes to make the sale happen.
Instead, the Ma government and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators have begun saying that Taiwan might no longer be interested in obtaining the F-16C/Ds, stating high costs and the marginal qualitative benefits of the F-16C/Ds over Taiwan’s F-16A/Bs once the latter are upgraded as part of a US$5.2 billion program.
During a meeting at the Presidential Office earlier this week, Ma left a delegation of US academics with the clear impression that he had no interest in obtaining the F-16C/Ds, defying earlier assessments that the political cost of abandoning the aircraft after several public appeals to the contrary would be too high.
So far, criticism has been muted, as a final decision has yet to be made. However, should this trend continue, it is very likely that the opportunity to finally procure the much-needed aircraft could disappear, leaving Taiwan weakened militarily while alienating its strongest supporters in Congress, who would have fought on Taiwan’s behalf for nothing. The scale of the damage to the relationship is hard to imagine, but one can foresee that members of congress who unwaveringly supported Taiwan over the years would think twice in future before dedicating time, energy and resources to an ally that fails to reciprocate, even when doing so is to its advantage.
The damage could even extend to military-to-military relations, with the US ever more reluctant to risk the lives of its men and women for the sake of Taiwan when the latter appears unwilling to do its share on national defense.
Just yesterday Ma reaffirmed his commitment to a strong national defense and the acquisition of arms from abroad when they cannot be developed domestically. He should back his words with action, while his advisers should remind him that without a strong air force, nothing that Taiwan acquires or develops in the next four years will be sufficient to ensure that Taiwan could counter an invasion from China.
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