Taiwan Gets a Little Help from U.S. Lawmakers
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI - Pro-Taiwan elements in the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee inserted a requirement for a presidential report on the status of Taiwan's air force in the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed on July 23.
The requirement appears to push for the release of the F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters requested by Taiwan in 2006, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Taipei-based Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies.
"The one value of this report would be that it requires DoD [Department of Defense] to sharpen its thinking about the F-16s," said Richard Bush, director, Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution.
Buried in the Senate bill is "Section 1226, Report on Taiwan's Air Force," which requires the U.S. president to submit a report to Congress within 90 days after the date of enactment.
"A comprehensive assessment of the Taiwan Air Force required by the Bill is a milestone for both Taipei and Washington to consider seriously the fundamental element for Taiwan military security," said York Chen, a former member of Taiwan's National Security Council.
The current imbalance between the PLAAF and the Taiwan Air Force will worsen if Taiwan does not upgrade its fighter fleet, said Chen, now with the Institute for Taiwan Defense and Strategic Studies.
However, it is still unclear whether the report requirement will survive the Congressional conference. The requirement was absent from the House of Representative's version of the bill and the two bills have to be reconciled before being sent to the White House.
Bush said Congress usually requires a report from the executive branch as a way to "satisfy the desire of some members that Congress 'do something' on the relevant issue, but refrain from exerting real pressure on the executive branch."
Bush also served as managing director of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1997 to 2002.
Bush said a report only has a "greater impact when Congressional leaders follow up the report with more intensive oversight."
The requirement calls for a "thorough and complete assessment of the current state of Taiwan's Air Force."
Including an assessment of the effectiveness of the aircraft "in the face of a full-scale concerted missile and air campaign by China" and an analysis of the specific weapons systems and platforms Taiwan needs.
The report must include "options for the United States to assist Taiwan in achieving those capabilities." Of particular interest is a five-year plan for "fulfilling the obligations of the United States under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide for Taiwan's self-defense and aid Taiwan in maintaining control of its own air space."
Mark Stokes, former U.S. DoD senior country director for China and Taiwan, said the requirement is an attempt to get the State Department and the Pentagon moving on Taiwan's long-delayed F-16 request.
"Officials in policy positions related to China/Taiwan tend to take the path of least resistance or path of least pain," Stokes said. "It's just the way government bureaucracies work. China inflicts a lot of pain when it comes to Taiwan arms sales. And the only thing that outweighs that pain is the Hill. When the Hill is passive, then China wins."
ONE REPORT JUSTIFIES ANOTHER
In the language used in Section 1226, the Senate draws from the annual Pentagon report on China's military power to justify the request. Stokes said the annual report is mandated by the 2000 NDAA.
The legislative language said, "Although the DoD's 2002 Report concluded that Taiwan 'has enjoyed dominance of the airspace over the Taiwan Strait for many years,' the DoD's 2009 Report states this conclusion no longer holds true."
The report said China had increased the number of combat aircraft to 490, including 330 fighters and 160 bombers.
Taiwan now numbers 390 fighters and no bombers, but is preparing to retire 60 aging F-5s and might mothball the remaining 56 Mirage 2000-5s due to maintenance problems.
"Advanced fighters and bombers, combined with enhanced training for nighttime and overwater flights, provide China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) with additional capabilities for regional strike or maritime interdiction operations."
Chen said the report requirement could also push Taiwan navy and army officials to support Taiwan air force requirements. Internecine warfare in the military between the three branches has harmed procurement budgets in the past.
"Without sustained air superiority over the theater, their elegant frigates and attack helicopters will only be easy prey to the PLAAF menace," he said