Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Taiwan F-16 Plan Faces Opposition in Washington



Taiwan F-16 Plan Faces Opposition in Washington


A plan by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) to move forward on a preapproved budget of $400 million for 66 F-16 fighter aircraft has been “frozen” by the National Defense Committee in the Legislative Yuan (LY) due to complaints that the United States has refused to provide price and availability data.

The legislature made the decision in November, and MND efforts to thaw the budget before the legislative session ended have been unsuccessful.

“Although this session of the Legislative Yuan is over, we will strongly urge the LY to call an extraordinary meeting in order to pass the budget,” said an MND source.

“The classified portion of the budget has been frozen by the National Defense Committee, and the unclassified portion has basically been eliminated in its entirety,” said Fu S. Mei, director of the Taiwan Security Analysis Center.

“Freezing the preapproved budget for F-16C/Ds was a compromise reached between the LY and MND, as a way of avoiding a potential ‘Catch-22’ situation. Most members of the LY National Defense Committee acknowledge the relative urgency of the F-16C/D requirement, but are not comfortable authorizing program funds without assurances that Washington would actually agree to the sale,” said Mei.

The logic of creating a preapproved budget is justified, argues a Taiwan military official.

“The U.S. government has been saying that they won’t approve unless the money is passed by the LY. So it may seem difficult for them to again deny it if the budget is passed. But, some [in the U.S. government] can use the delay tactics by asking Taiwan to buy those [weapon systems] approved in 2001, given the attitude of some in the State Department.”

Legislative Inaction

The United States balked at Taiwan’s requests to discuss additional purchases of F-16 C/D Block 50/52 fighters in 2006 due to legislative inaction on a long-stalled arms budget promised by the Bush administration in 2001 that included eight diesel submarines, 12 P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft and six Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile batteries.

The MND also wants the United States to release the air refueler system for the F-16s and sell, for the first time, air tankers to Taiwan. The exact number of tankers was not discussed. At present, Taiwan has no air refueling capability. Air tankers will allow Taiwan to project force further into mainland China during a war.

Also, when the legislature froze the budget in November, they gave the MND five months to get price and availability data from the United States. Without it, the LY Defense Committee has said it will not pass the budget.

U.S. Objections and Fears

Washington has become increasingly reluctant to support future arms sales due to complaints that the 2001 arms offer has been successfully blocked more than 60 times by pro-China and anti-President Chen Shui-bian legislators.

To further complicate the problem, the legislature has whittled the procurement deal down by eliminating the PAC-3s and submarines and replacing the package with a study on submarine designs, an upgrade for Taiwan’s current PAC-2s and the 12 P-3s — and still that budget has been delayed by additional political wrangling.

The Bush administration’s 2001 offer enraged Beijing, causing a political rift. Analysts argue that Washington is unlikely to approve additional sales to Taiwan without guarantees from Taipei that the sale will be approved.

A U.S. defense official in Washington agrees.

“I believe passing the budget for the F-16 will definitely help. One of the concerns is that Taiwan might not follow through [like the 2001 items] if the U.S. approves the sale. The U.S. would have suffered a diplomatic head butt with the People’s Republic of China over nothing. If Taiwan passes the budget, it would send the signal that it will follow through.”

Alexander Huang, a senior associate of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies who lives here, said, “Preapproving a budget for the sale would put more pressure on the U.S. to manage relations with Beijing, but it can also help Washington in making a relatively swift decision. The money is there. It’s time for the White House to think seriously and positively about this case.”

There are fears in Washington that approving the F-16 sale to Taiwan would once again enrage China. Beijing would punish the United States at a time when it needs China’s assistance on the North Korean issue.

“On the broad layout of political influence, Washington does need Beijing more than Taipei now. However, as the U.S. looks ahead in the future when it needs to defend its strategic interests in the Western Pacific against Chinese encroachment, a Taiwan that guards the vital portal of the first island chain remains indispensable,” said Chong-pin Lin, president of the Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies and former Taiwan vice minister of defense.

There is a belief among many in Taiwan that the U.S. State Department has conspired to block the sale to improve relations with Beijing.

“A very senior U.S. person is blocking the F-16 sale to Taiwan. Even if Taiwan passes the defense budget, it will not affect this decision to block the sale. A State Department rep at the meeting did not want to give any room to negotiate on this issue,” said a U.S defense contractor here.

The Balance of Power

“Washington has been trying to find a way to balance its engagement with China together with its commitment to assisting Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs. There are sound justifications for the F-16C/D, based on the requirement to replace aging aircraft in Taiwanese inventory and the need to maintain military balance in the Taiwan Strait, in light of very rapid modernization of Chinese air power. All indications are that the Bush administration will find a way to get this done,” said Mei.

Many see China’s aggressive military modernization as justification of continued U.S. support for Taiwan.

“I think the Taiwan Relations Act gives the U.S. a special legal claim to providing legitimate defense weapons to Taiwan and I think that will continue. I also think the U.S. and the rest of the world have yet to know whether or not China will use its newly found power in constructive or destructive ways, and so all will include this dimension into their cost-risk calculus,” said a former American Institute in Taiwan official.

“I think Beijing’s direct-ascent ASAT [anti-satellite test] may serve as a godsend for Taipei’s effort to get F-16s. The event has provided Washington a verbal counter on Beijing’s protest on the sales which is almost predictable,” said Lin.

Some analysts in Taipei and Washington say continued U.S. arms sales to Taiwan faces extinction due to Beijing’s growing economic, political and military influence, and Taiwan’s own financial investments in China. These investments, estimated to be $7.6 billion in 2006 alone, have made Taiwan and China financially dependent on each other.