President Obama’s refusal to sell modern fighters to longtime ally Republic of China (Taiwan) dooms that country, frightens our allies, and robs America of needed jobs. Worse, it tells Communist China that America’s foreign policy and her democratic principles are for sale.
Last week Obama agreed to refurbish Taiwan’s 1980s vintage F-16A/B fighter fleet rather than sell the island nation the much-needed modern F-16C/D fighters or the state-of-the-art stealth F-35, which outmatch China’s fighters. But according to the Washington Post, an Obama official said the refit deal is “like not getting a Prius and asking for a custom-built Ferrari instead.” This is a clear indication Obama has no intention of selling Taiwan modern fighters.
But Democratic Taiwan needs sophisticated fighters to defend itself against the militarizing Communist China. Under Beijing’s principle of “one country, two systems,” it never renounced the use of force to take back Taiwan, which it sees as a renegade province. The Chinese Nationalist Party fled in 1949 to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War to China’s Communist rulers.
Taiwan has historically relied upon four factors to deter China: Beijing’s inability to project sufficient power across the 100-mile Taiwan Strait, Taiwan’s technological superiority, the advantages of island defense, and the promise of U.S. intervention. But Beijing is rapidly closing those gaps, which explains Taiwan’s urgency for the modern fighters.
The cross-strait military balance now favors China, and as a result, Beijing is rapidly approaching the day when it can take the island. Currently China stations opposite the island nation 1,200 ballistic missiles, thousands of cruise missiles, 68 major naval combatants with 46 amphibious warfare ships, and 490 mostly fourth-generation fighters within non-refueling range of Taiwan.
Beijing also jeopardizes America’s promise of intervention by fielding a credible anti-access capability. In the Taiwan Strait area, it deploys 35 submarines equipped with torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles (SS-N-22 and SS-B-27), and China is developing the “carrier-killer” missile, DF-21D, with a range exceeding 940 miles.
China’s militarization campaign has reversed Taiwan’s technological superiority edge as well. The difference between the forces will grow even wider with Obama’s “upgrade” plan, and could get worse.
“Realistically, it doesn’t matter if they [the U.S.] sell them [Taiwan] shiny brand-new planes or upgrades, an F-16 is not competitive against a Flanker,” Carlo Kopp, a Chinese aviation expert, told the Wall Street Journal. China’s Russian-designed SU-27 and SU-30 Flankers can fly further and fight longer than the F-16, any model. That argues for equipping Taiwan with the sophisticated F-35, something Obama hasn’t even considered.
Obama’s upgrade-only fighter plan clearly violates the intent of U.S. law. In 1979, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, Public Law 96-8, which obliges the U.S. to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” But upgrading rather than replacing old fighters ignores the law’s intent, which is why politicians on both sides of the Pacific are crying foul.
U.S. Rep. Buck McKeon (R.-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, labeled Obama’s fighter decision “shortsighted,” and Rep. Howard Berman (D.-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, called the A/B upgrade a “half-measure,” according to the Associated Press.
Taiwanese leaders are especially concerned. Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou said Taipei needs the new warplanes to continue negotiating with Beijing from a position of strength. Opposition Democratic Progressive Party legislator Tsai Huang-liang, chief whip of his caucus, labeled the upgrade a “consolation prize” that cannot meet Taiwan’s needs, according to the Taipei Central News Agency.
Obama’s fighter consolation-prize decision sends troubling messages to at least four parties.
First, Obama’s deal tells China the U.S. recognizes that Taiwan is indefensible, a liability, and an obstacle to better bilateral relations. And it communicates Obama is easily cowed by the Chinese.
Chinese’ reaction to the arms deal was less strident than previous reactions, which suggests the possibility of a backroom deal. A toned-down Chinese reaction suggests Beijing’s interests are served by the deal, and besides, China wants to maintain stable relations with Taiwan prior to the island’s January 2012 presidential election to avoid stirring up nationalists who seek independence from the mainland.
The “Taiwan is indefensible” message is based on Taiwan’s dwindling deterrence. This view goes something like this: The U.S. can only do so much to help Taiwan defend itself against a determined China, and that does not include providing modern weapons and security guarantees. The only alternative that might reverse the trend is unthinkable, that is, station U.S. forces and or nuclear weapons on the island.
There is also America’s “liability” concern about the strong nationalistic opposition in Taiwan that one day might declare the island’s independence from Beijing. That would trigger Article 8 of China’s March 2005 “anti-succession law” that authorizes Beijing to use “non-peaceful means” if “secessionist forces … cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China.” A Chinese attack would drag the U.S. into the conflict that could quickly escalate.
Then again, Taiwan is an “obstacle” to improving relations with China. The occasional blowup over arms deals and the like inhibit U.S. efforts to deal with China on important issues such as nuclear weapons and cyberspace. “Resolving” the Taiwan issue arguably helps U.S.-China relations.
Second, Obama’s no-upgrade decision dooms democratic Taiwan by communicating it should resolve tensions with Communist Beijing peacefully by abandoning reliance on security deterrence. Of course the fighter deal removes Taiwan’s pretense of security leverage, which puts Beijing in the catbird seat.
But there is hope that Taiwan and China can peacefully resolve their half-century-old dispute. The parties expanded trade, and economic and cultural ties, over the past few years, hoping to bridge their differences. While these initiatives are encouraging, they have not persuaded Beijing to abandon its unification demand.
Third, the no-upgrade deal communicates to U.S. allies that America is not a reliable partner. Apparently, the deal violates the intent of the Taiwan Relations Act and marginalizes security promises in order to avoid antagonizing China. Rep. McKeon said as much: “A decision to deny a key ally the systems they require for self-defense is troubling … and certainly in the Asia Pacific region, our allies are watching our defense drawdown with a wary eye.”
Our allies are watching to see whether America will stand by her friends and commitments no matter where the threats are from, even from superpower China. “I can’t think that our allies will find [Obama’s] choice reassuring,” McKeon added.
Finally, Obama’s decision tells the American people he is willing to forgo significant economic benefits to the U.S. economy by abandoning the sale of the F-16C/Ds to appease China. This is tough news in a job-thirsty U.S. economy.
A report by the Perryman Group, a Texas-based economic research analysis firm, said the sale of F-16C/Ds to Taiwan “would generate some $8.7 billion in output.” That report, which is cited by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) in draft legislation favoring the sale, states it would create 23,407 jobs.
President Obama’s refusal to sell modern fighters to Taiwan communicates some very troubling messages. It tells Taiwan to surrender to China, tells our allies they cannot depend on American security promises, and tells Americans not to expect needed jobs. But perhaps worst, it tells the Communist Chinese that America’s foreign policy and principles are for sale.