Features | Security | East Asia

A Lose-Lose Fighter Decision

The Obama administration’s decision to offer upgrades to Taiwan’s aging F-16 fighter fleet will annoy Beijing and unsettle Taiwan.

By Gerrit van der Wees for

On Wednesday, the Obama administration officially notified the US Congress of its decision to only offer Taiwan an upgrade of existing F-16 A/Bs, rather than the sale of 66 new F-16 C/Ds as the government in Taipei had requested.

The issue had already caused political shockwaves in Washington long before the decision was announced: back in May of this year, a broad coalition of 45 senators wrote to Obama urging him to ‘quickly notify Congress of the sale of 66 F-16 C/D aircraft that Taiwan needs in order to modernize its air force.’ On August 1, the House of Representatives followed suit with a similar letter, signed by a staggering 181 House members.

So what exactly is at stake here? First, airpower across the Taiwan Strait is seriously imbalanced.  Taiwan has a mixed fleet of 145 existing F-16 A/Bs, 56 Mirage 2000s purchase from France in the early 1990s, 126 Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDF) that entered into service in the late 1980s, and 42 Vietnam-era F-5s, which have now been flying for more than 30 years.

All this means that out of Taiwan’s total fleet of 370 fighter aircraft, half are more than 20 years-old, while the other half is some 15 years-old.  An upgrade of the existing F-16 A/Bs is therefore in order, something that the United States agrees with. You would think, then, replacing aircraft that entered service in the 1970s and 1980s would be rational and reasonable, especially in light of the breakneck pace at which Beijing has been building up its fleet.

A quick perusal of this year’s US Defence Department report on China’s military power, now inconspicuously titled ‘Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China,’ shows that China has a total of 1,680 fighter aircraft, plus 620 bombers/attack aircraft, out of which 330 and 160 respectively are stationed within range of Taiwan. Many of these are modern, advanced aircraft of the Russian Sukhoi 27 and 30 types, while China is also testing fifth-generation stealth aircraft (J-20) and carrier-based aircraft (J-15), in addition to purchasing more advanced aircraft from Russia.

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The US government is therefore fully aware of this imbalance of airpower across the Strait. Last January, the Defense Intelligence Agency made an assessment of Taiwan’s air defence status, and found that it was increasingly vulnerable due to the aging of its fighter aircraft. Back then, the Obama administration promised an air balance report by last summer. But the report still hasn’t been published (sources in the administration say it has been completed by the Defence Department, but is being blocked by the National Security Council, which is anxious not to offend China).

Supporters of selling newer fighters to Taiwan had hoped that the economic arguments might convince the Obama administration to go ahead with the sale of new aircraft. As was the case in 1992, when the first President Bush announced the sale of the first batch of 150 F-16 A/B aircraft, it would bring new jobs. Indeed, according to a recent Perryman Group report, some 23,000 jobs across 10 states including Texas, California, New York, Virginia and Maryland would be created.

It’s this economic argument that will be the main reason why Congress will attempt to override the decision and force the administration to go ahead with the sale. Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ and the co-chair of the Senate Taiwan Caucus) have already introduced legislation, the Taiwan Airpower Modernization Act, to do precisely that.

On the House side, meanwhile, the chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), has introduced a broader Taiwan Policy Act, which specifically includes language in support of the new F-16s. This legislation has both Democratic and Republican support, and can be expected to move quickly through Congress.

The View from Taiwan

Support for the purchase of new F-16s from the United States is one of the few issues the political parties in Taiwan can agree on. The request for 66 new F-16 C/D aircraft was initiated back in 2006 by the DPP administration of Chen Shui-bian, which saw it as a much-needed boost of the island’s capabilities to defend itself against an increasingly aggressive China. Initially, President Ma Ying-jeou’s Kuomintang opposed the sale and blocked it in the legislature, where the party had a majority. However, after he came to power in 2008, Ma made a 180 degree turn and started to support the sale, as he was anxious to negotiate with China ‘from a position of strength.’ With presidential elections coming up in January, the Ma government has redoubled its efforts in support of the new F-16 C/Ds over the past few months, as it didn’t want to be seen by the electorate as lax on defence.

The decision by the Obama administration not to go ahead with the sale of the F-16 C/Ds at the present time will be perceived by the electorate in Taiwan as a major policy failure by the Ma government. The opposition DPP had anyway accused Ma of simply going through the motions of requesting the new F-16 C/Ds, but not being serious about Taiwan’s defence, allowing the defence budget to wither and Taiwan’s capabilities to deteriorate.

In Beijing, meanwhile, the government and People’s Liberation Army can be expected to kick up a minor storm about the proposed fighter upgrade. Behind the scenes, though, there will be some satisfaction over the fact that the strong pressure on Washington is producing results, and that China has prevented the Obama administration from adding punch to Taiwan’s air force. Beijing has been adept at using the arms sale issue in pressuring the United States: it has linked it to its cooperation on a host of other issues, such as the South China Sea, North Korea, etc. (Although on each of these issues it has gone its own way anyway).

One thing is clear the last word has yet to be spoken on this issue. There will be a tough debate, and the Obama administration may well have to backtrack and move ahead with the sale after all – and in the not too distant future.

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Regardless, today’s decision is a ‘lose-lose’ proposition for Obama: Beijing won’t be happy, and won’t be until Taiwan gives up its aspirations to be a full and equal member of the international community. And Taiwan isn’t going to be happy about this either.

But, more than anything, the decision doesn’t bode well for the United States’ strategic influence in East Asia, as other nations will interpret it as a retreat and a reduction of support for a key nation in the chain of nations bordering China in the Western Pacific.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. He presently serves as senior policy advisor for the Washington-based Formosan Association for Public Affairs, and is editor of the publication Taiwan Communiqué.