Doubts were being cast on reports this week that US Vice President Joe Biden would assure Beijing during his visit next month that the US would not sell F-16C/D aircraft to Taiwan.
While refusing to comment directly on the reports, a source close to US President Barack Obama’s administration said that just a few days ago the US Department of State had confirmed that “no decision” had been made on whether to sell the aircraft to Taiwan.
“That has not changed,” the source said.
Pressed for what that meant for Biden’s trip, he said: “No decision has been made. Until a decision is made, there is no way that Biden or anyone else can tell the Chinese about it.”
Officials spoke on the condition that they not be named because of the delicate diplomatic situation.
Biden will visit Beijing in the middle of next month and is certain to be closely questioned and warned about US arms sales to Taiwan.
A “senior US official” reportedly told the Chinese-language news agency DW News that Biden would tell Beijing that the US would agree to update Taiwan’s aging 144 F-16A/B aircraft and that a formal announcement would be made in September.
There has been widespread speculation over the past month that the upgrade will go ahead, but that the sale of the much more advanced F-16C/Ds will not be approved.
However, that speculation has not been confirmed by anyone in a position to know.
There can be little doubt that a sale of the F-16C/Ds would result in a strong protest from Beijing and disruption of US-China relations. Most likely, Beijing would break off the military-to-military contacts so desired by Washington.
While China would also protest upgrading Taiwan’s older F-16A/B aircraft, it would be less concerned and would be less likely to disrupt relations with Washington.
US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs and a strong supporter of selling the more advanced F-16C/Ds to Taiwan, was not available for comment.
However, “it would be deeply disappointing were the administration to inform Beijing about this decision before consulting with and informing the US Congress,” a senior congressional aide said.
Another senior aide confirmed that the administration had not told Congress that a decision on the F-16 sale had been made and that it was “impossible to believe” that Biden would share that information with China before he would share it with Capitol Hill.
Rick Fisher, a senior fellow in Asian military affairs with the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, told the Taipei Times that the DW News report could be an example of Chinese disinformation.
“DW News appears to be a US company, but it resembles other large Chinese Internet news portals like Sina.com, albeit with a less pronounced nationalist bent,” Fisher said.
“The lack of any real descriptor of its ‘senior’ US source raises the possibility that knowledgeable Chinese government officials, perhaps even Propaganda Department officials, are the real origin of the story,” he said.
Fisher said that Beijing wants to convince Chinese and Taiwanese audiences that it is slowly forcing the US to surrender its military and political interests on Taiwan and that Taiwanese must eventually surrender to China.
Nevertheless, he said there was little in the Obama administration’s statements or “body language” to indicate it was willing to proceed with the sale of new F-16s in the foreseeable future.
“Washington gains nothing by delaying the sale of new F-16s to Taiwan. Selling new F-16s with modern subsystems will more quickly prepare the Taiwan Air Force for what it really needs, a version of the fifth-generation F-35. Depending upon the equipment package, upgrading Taiwan’s early model F-16s can sustain a low level of parity, but that will not keep pace with a Chinese threat that grows every day,” Fisher said.
“For Washington, no amount of mil-to-mil contact with the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] is worth allowing deterrence on the Taiwan Strait to decline to the point of inviting a catastrophic war,” Fisher said.
“Regardless of the DW News story’s veracity, the Obama administration risks projecting that it values the former more than preventing the later,” he said.
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