Cross-Strait Ties to Cool?

If the US really wants to help Taiwan stand up to China there are better ways than selling it F-16s.

Ever since the jailhouse door banged shut on disgraced Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, the bogeyman of cross-strait relations, we’ve grown accustomed to watching Taiwan-China ties assume a relatively smooth and positive trajectory. The notion of Taiwan abandoning the status quo has become remote, as too has the threat of China ordering its military to decimate the want-away island.

However, Taiwan and China’s generally warming relations may be about to experience a cold snap more reminiscent of the bad old days. China already has all the missiles it needs to deter Taiwan from ever declaring independence, but according to the Taiwanese government the build-up continues. Taiwanese intelligence now thinks that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has 1,600 missiles aimed at Taiwanese targets, and it says there will be 1,800 by 2012 – that’s despite the fact that China had until recently been expected to scale back its anti-Taiwan missile forces as a gesture of goodwill.

Moreover, National Security Bureau Director Tsai Der-sheng has also revealed that the PLA has stood up a new ballistic missile brigade in Guangdong, encouraging the Taipei press to muse on what kind of new missiles the brigade is operating: perhaps DF-16 surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, or even the much-talked-about DF-12D anti-ship ballistic missile.

Taiwan’s revelations should be understood in the context of the visit of Gen. Chen Bingde, the PLA’s chief of staff, to the United States in late May, during which Chen bent Congress’s ear about ‘reviewing’ – by which he presumably meant ditching – the Taiwan Relations Act. The United States has been stalling on its commitment to supply arms to Taiwan, perhaps offering China encouragement that the US might cut Taiwan loose; but pressure in fact is building for Washington to make a sale, both in the United States and Taiwan.

The sale most likely to go through is that of 66 F-16C/D fighter aircraft (Taiwan wants submarines, too, but that isn’t going to happen). With nearly half the US Senate having just signed a letter to President Barack Obama – a.k.a. a welcome note to Gen. Chen – calling for the deal to go ahead, momentum over a sale is clearly building, and in the opposite direction to that espoused by Chen.

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Unfortunately, the deal will be all about politics and business, not about defence and strategy. Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou wants the F-16s so that he can show voters he still has leverage in Washington, and that he is working to counter China’s widening military advantage. Obama may decide the time is right to fire a shot across China’s bows, with US voters increasingly agitated about the expansion of Chinese power; perhaps more importantly, the Americans want to keep the F-16 production line churning.

But strategically speaking, all the F-16 sale will do is rile the Chinese and make for choppier waters in the strait. Will 66 F-16s tip the military balance back in Taiwan’s favour? Not in the least. A lot of those 1,600 missiles are pointed at Taiwanese airstrips, and there are plenty of SAMs waiting in Fujian for any Taiwanese jets that actually manage to make it off the ground. The price of upsetting China seems high for an asset that does little to improve Taiwan’s strategic position. If the United States is going to sell weapons to Taiwan, it might consider selling something that would really strengthen the island militarily, not just weaken it diplomatically.

At the same time, it remains within China’s gift to outflank both the US and Taiwan on this issue: It could draw down some of those missile forces arrayed against Taiwan, and render American arms shipments to the island unnecessary.