It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Obama administration, fearing another rupture in its hard-earned progress in restoring military ties with China’s People's Liberation Army (PLA), is hesitant to address the growing gap in air power capabilities in the Taiwan Straits. It’s being reported that the administration has tried to thwart public awareness of its refusal to sell F-16 C/Ds by exerting pressure on Taiwan to refrain from requesting a sale altogether.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration remains ambiguous about upgrading Taiwan’s existing fleet of F-16 A/Bs. Even without the deployment of a carrier-based air wing or a new fifth-generation stealth fighter, the quantity and quality improvements in the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) are thought to already be sufficient to achieve air superiority during a Taiwan contingency. Recognizing the tide may have already turned in favour of the PLAAF with it having achieved air superiority, military analysts and sympathetic legislators are now pushing to increase pressure on the administration to live up to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) by providing Taiwan with better equipment.
A source of contention arises from the third joint communiqué between the United States and China in 1982 that assured China that the US would gradually decrease arms sales to Taiwan, with the goal of ceasing them altogether at some future date. This provision has created an ongoing debate that will likely continue for at least the near future. However, there are some wrinkles to the current situation that may necessitate quick and nimble responses.
The first difference is that the F-16 production line could be permanently shut down if no new orders are received by the end of this year. On the surface, it appears that this will prompt the typical reaction by the military industrial complex to push arms sales in order to boost revenues and save jobs. But this time things are different. After the F-16 production line closes, there will be no other similar US fighter jets to sell to Taiwan. And other foreign militaries are probably less likely to anger China with sales of their own planes. After the F-16, the only options that could address the problem would be even more capable planes, like the F-35. If Beijing strongly disapproves of the sale of F-16s to its renegade province, the sale of more advanced aircraft would likely evoke exponentially stronger protests from China.
Another difference is how the debate is coinciding with US electoral cycles. Arms sales to Taiwan have been a part of US presidential politics before. However, awareness of and potential resentment toward China has rarely been so heightened. China’s rise has increasingly taken the lead in US geopolitical calculations of both policymakers and average voters. The last mid-term election saw a trend toward anti-China pandering on the economic front, and, since that time, China’s image has plunged in the eyes of many Americans because of its perceived belligerence. The underdog story of Taiwan, with its liberal, democratic society, could become prominent in the foreign policy debates of the next presidential election if the arms sale debate is still simmering.
A final difference in the current situation is that Beijing and Washington have a rare convergence of interests in the next Taiwanese election. Both sides would prefer to see Ma Ying-jeou re-elected. But to secure victory, Ma will likely have to prove to Taiwanese voters that he isn’t selling out their hard-fought de facto sovereignty with his pro-mainland policies. Ma could help his re-election chances if he could show to the Taiwanese electorate that he’s still prepared to defend the island from any unilateral move toward reunification by the PLA. US arms sales could be a clear signal that Ma is steadfast in his intent to adequately provide for the defence of Taiwan. In the event he fails to secure what is perceived to be a needed arms sale, then more provocative actions or statements may be required to co-opt the Kuomintang’s pro-independence rivals and move Ma closer to the middle.
China, meanwhile, is confronted with the sale of an older air superiority platform in the F-16 now, or else risk the sale of an even more capable fighter in the future if the F-16 production line is shut down. Though choosing between two bad options, the PLA should prefer to see 66 older F-16s sold to Taiwan rather than a potentially larger number of much more advanced fighters. Future sales may entail larger numbers because arms sales are done in accordance with threat assessments to Taiwan — as required by the TRA — that analyse the PLA’s capabilities. These assessments will inevitably document an increase in PLAAF capabilities, therefore necessitating more arms sales to Taiwan in accordance with the TRA.
There’s also a political impetus to get this arms sale done now. In Taiwan, the sale would bolster Ma in the next election. As alluded to before, the arms sale could preclude Ma from taking provocative actions by providing cover from accusations that he’s selling out Taiwan’s security with his pro-mainland policies. In regard to the other two relevant actors, an arms sale now could possibly take the issue off the table before the political transition takes place in Beijing and the US political climate becomes combustible with a presidential election.
Another possible benefit for doing an arms sale now would be that, in the event of another rupture in Sino-US military ties, the damage may be lessened. The problem with Sino-US military relations has been the lack of continuity. Another break in the military relationship would be a setback for sure. However, there will most likely be a turnover in the top military decision-making body in China, the Central Military Commission (CMC), at the next Party Congress in 2012. So, many of the contacts that the administration is currently cultivating will likely be gone in a year’s time anyway. Therefore, a one-year freeze in military relations, which is about the normal length of time for Chinese protests over arms sales, could begin to thaw by the time that US military leaders would normally be starting over again with new Chinese military leaders.
The final motivation for urgency is that Chinese President Hu Jintao is still in charge. Hu has been relatively successful at demonstrating that the mainland can make more gains with Taiwan through diplomacy rather than military sabre rattling. He is also firmly in control of the CMC since he has been in charge of personnel decisions for the past nine years. There could be something of a ‘lame duck’ factor for Hu. And, if there is, it will only worsen as 2012 approaches. The post-Hu political environment could conceivably become more combustible as a brand new paramount leader might still feel too insecure to exert the necessary control over the CMC and PLA. Such is speculated to have been the case with Jiang Zemin in the Taiwan crises of the mid-1990s. Under this view, Jiang was still not fully entrenched as the undisputed leader when Taiwan’s Lee Teng-hui engaged in a series of provocative actions. Feeling insecure, Jiang was held hostage by the more belligerent PLA and forced to appease them by agreeing to their dangerous military posturing.
It’s clear that the time to act on the Taiwan arms sales is now. There could be expectations from both sides that if the F-16 sales are stalled until the production line is shut down, then the huge discrepancy in capabilities when compared to the next most likely platforms, which would be much more capable, would make arms sales to Taiwan prohibitively costly within the context of Sino-US relations. Under this logic, the F-16 could be the breaking point for the TRA, which would be a huge victory for China and a possible relief to those US policymakers who see the TRA as a constant complication for broader US national interests. However, this expectation is fanciful and potentially very dangerous.
China is no longer just a trading partner or potential regional headache. As more Americans come to see China as a global rival, with perceived revisionist or anti-status quo aims, then it will be harder for policymakers to appear weak in the face of Chinese demands. There are also signs that China is losing the support of its most important US lobbying constituency, large corporations with operations and growing markets in China, as they are becoming disillusioned with a business environment that’s less inviting than originally hoped for.
Rather than a gradual decrease in support for the TRA, which China hopes will happen, the sagging public opinion toward China in the United States could create the political impetus to promote more confrontational policies toward China. The temptation to portray Taiwan as the ‘new Munich’ could drive US voters and elected officials to favour more overt military support for Taiwan. This would reverse many of the gains made in the overall Sino-US relationship and possibly lead to catastrophic conflict.
So, if it is in the interests of all involved parties to maintain the current tranquillity in the Straits, then it will actually be better to push through the sale of F-16s to Taiwan now, no matter how counterintuitive that may seem.
Conversely, refusing to sell F-16s now would only allow the problem to fester. The sale of F-16 C/Ds will definitely not end the debate about arms sales, but it could possibly resolve the current debate and buy enough time to avoid more complicated decisions during the politically turbulent years ahead. Clearly, all three of the parties involved have a reason to support an F-16 sale now. In this instance, quiet diplomacy and unofficial coordination on this deal could serve to preserve the present stability and tranquillity of the Taiwan Straits. But the time to act is now.
Matt Anderson is a Resident Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS.