There is growing pressure on US President Barack Obama to sell advanced F-16 fighters to Taiwan.
“The time to provide these fighters is now,” Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, told a major hearing held by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission on Thursday.
It became clear as witnesses were questioned that many, if not most, of the commissioners agreed.
Taiwan’s request to buy 66 F-16C/D fighters is now being considered by the White House.
“The military and strategic imperatives for Taiwan are real and urgent,” said Diaz-Balart, the opening witness at the day-long hearing on developments across the Taiwan Strait and their implication for the US. “If we fail to show the necessary resolve, it would mean missing a significant opportunity to ensure peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region — a vital US interest.”
“In addition to being irresponsible, it makes no sense to continue to deny Taiwan modern fighter aircraft. Mainland China will protest anyway. In fact, by protesting so vociferously to the weapons sale announcement on Jan. 29, 2010, the Communist Chinese are seeking to pressure the United States into not selling advanced fighter planes,” he said.
Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said Taiwan’s move to democracy was “a miracle” and “one of the great achievements of the 20th century.”
Taiwan had “played by the rules” and should be rewarded, he said.
Commissioner Dan Blumenthal said China’s huge military advantage meant that Taiwan was having to conduct negotiations with Beijing while a gun was being pointed at its head.
Michael Schiffer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, said a Taiwan that is “strong, confident and free from threats and intimidation” would be best postured to discuss the future with China.
However, he avoided answering Commissioners’ questions about the sale of the F-16s.
“A Taiwan that is vulnerable, isolated and under threat would not be in a position to reliably discuss its future with the mainland and may invite the very aggression we would seek to deter, jeopardizing our interests in regional peace and prosperity,” he said.
“It appears that Beijing’s long-term strategy is to use political, diplomatic, economic and cultural levers to pursue unification with Taiwan, while building a credible military threat to attack the island if events are moving in what Beijing sees as the wrong direction,” Schiffer said.
Schiffer said, however, that lasting security “cannot be achieved simply by purchasing advanced hardware.”
He said the Pentagon was “constantly engaged” in evaluating, assessing and reviewing Taiwan’s defense needs.
In an oblique reference to the F-16s, he said the Obama administration would consult with Congress “if and when we move forward with additional support and assistance to Taiwan.”
David Shear, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the US would continue to stand by its commitment to provide Taiwan with “defense articles and defense services” in whatever quantity may be necessary.
“While we continue to bolster Taiwan’s confidence, we also express to the PRC our strong concern over continued lack of transparency in its military modernization and its rapid buildup across the Strait,” he said.
David Shlapak, a senior international policy analyst with the RAND Corporation, said China might use about a quarter of its short-range ballistic missile force in the first minutes and hours of any cross-Strait conflict to attack Taiwan’s runways and unsheltered aircraft.
Such a move “could potentially deliver a staggering blow” to Taiwan’s air force.
“If China can largely shut down Taiwan’s air bases for even a few hours, it would gain a substantial — perhaps decisive — advantage in the air,” Shlapak said.
“Our analysis indicates that adding 50 new fighters to the [Republic of China Air Force] might improve Taiwan’s situation, but those results depended strongly on the island’s air bases remaining operational.
“An F-16C that cannot fly because its base has no usable runways or one that has been destroyed by an attack on its outdoor parking area or its shelter offers no advantage over an older fighter similarly situated,” he said.
Shlapak said, however, that air bases could be further hardened by burying all fuel storage and providing shelters for all aircraft.
Taiwan’s air force could also seek to acquire some number of short take-off, vertical landing fighters like the F-35B currently being developed for the US Marine Corps, which requires a much shorter stretch of intact runway from which to operate.
“Taiwan’s desire to procure additional F-16s is understandable,” said Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute. “A follow-on procurement of F-16s could serve as a bridge pending the availability of very short take off and landing airframes.”
“A full-scale military conflict between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait would be [a] disaster, not only for Taiwan and the PRC, but for the US and the world as a whole,” he said. It would be a form of “mutually assured economic destruction.”
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