Taiwan’s government is deeply disappointed by the Obama administration’s stance on a request to purchase 66 advanced-model F-16 fighters. Instead of letting Taiwan buy the newer versions, the US merely agreed to retrofit the 146 older models already in Taipei’s fleet.
That decision was a blow to President Ma Ying-jeou, who, since his election in 2008, has gone to great lengths to cultivate better relations with mainland China and reduce tensions in the Taiwan Strait — measures that US officials clearly endorsed. Although Ma has adopted a more conciliatory approach towards Beijing, he wanted to get the newer jets for his country’s air force just as much as did his pro-independence predecessor Chen Shui-bian. Indeed, because Ma has pursued a “soft” policy towards Beijing on so many economic and diplomatic fronts, he needed the arms sale to fend off domestic criticism and polish his defence credentials.
Washington’s decision has undercut his position and played into the hands of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, just before next year’s presidential election on the island. It has also undercut Taiwan’s already fading defence capabilities.
The Obama administration tried to put the best face possible on the failure to approve the sale, arguing that retrofitting the older planes would make them nearly as good as the newer models. Not only is that point debatable, but it ignores the reality that the purchase of the 66 planes would have expanded the existing fleet.
Washington’s reasons are not hard to discern. US leaders are anxious not to antagonise Beijing. The Obama administration needs China’s help on so many international economic and security issues, and wants China to continue buying the enormous quantities of US Treasury debt generated each year. Selling advanced F-16s to Taiwan would have jeopardised all of those objectives.
But Washington is sending dangerous mixed messages to Taiwan — and indirectly to Beijing. At best, the move increases Taiwan’s over-reliance on US military protection. At worst, it invites Beijing to ramp up its military pressure on Taiwan.
US leaders need to make up their minds. Do they want Taiwan to have robust defences, thereby deterring Beijing from making any attempt to compel the island to reunify? Or is the US willing to back away from its commitment to Taiwan and accommodate Beijing on the issue of reunification? If it’s the former, waffling on crucial arms purchase requests is unwise and dangerous. If it’s the latter, the US needs to be honest with the Taiwanese and let them know they are on their own and cannot count on military aid from the US.