U.S. To Decide on Taiwan F-16s Oct. 1
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI - The Obama administration will make a final decision on the sale of 66 F-16C/D fighter jets to Taiwan by Oct. 1, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on July 21.
Since 2006, the U.S. has repeatedly rejected Taiwan's letter of request (LOR) for new F-16C/D fighters. China has called the proposed sale, estimated to be worth more than $8 billion, a "red line."
Cornyn has been blocking Senate confirmation of William Burns, nominated to become deputy secretary of state, in an effort to pressure Clinton to approve the deal.
Clinton appears less than likely to upset recent progress in Sino-U.S. relations by releasing new fighters to Taiwan, although she might instead release a mid-life upgrade (MLU) package for the self-governing island's 146 aging F-16A/B fighters.
Last year, the U.S. accepted Taiwan's LOR for the $4.5 billion upgrade package, but then froze the release due to Chinese pressure.
A State Department release of the F-16A/B MLU "would be a reiteration of a decision that is already over one year old," said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council. "It is not a new commitment."
Since 2007, the U.S. has released more than $16 billion in new arms to Taiwan. After each release, China has increased rhetorical threats and punitive actions. In January 2010, after Washington released a $6.4 billion arms deal to Taiwan, Beijing threatened economic punishment and canceled military exchanges.
Restarting the military dialogue with China has been difficult. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, just concluded a trip to China to expand military relations. Though Mullen expressed concerns about China's military modernization after his trip, the U.S. appears committed to advancing strategic talks.
Clinton's announced deadline happens to fall on China's National Day, roughly equivalent to America's Fourth of July.
But Hammond-Chambers said the timing makes the release of new F-16s difficult for another reason: It is sandwiched between U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden's trip to China next month and Chinese President Hu Jintao's trip to Hawaii in November. Xi Jinping, Hu's anointed successor, will visit the U.S. this winter.
"It doesn't seem plausible that the Obama administration would stand-up for Taiwan policy in the face of two such senior visits from China," Hammond-Chambers said.
While the announcement to make a decision is welcome, "We suspect that the outcome simply reiterates decisions already made, and therefore fails to address Taiwan's central need - new combat aircraft to meet the growing threat from China," Hammond-Chambers said.
Andrew Yang, Taiwan's deputy minister of defense, said the release of new F-16s would not be the end of the world. China has been calling every arms sale a red line for 30 years, he said.
"China will be extremely unpleasant and upset," Yang said. "I don't believe they will take drastic action."
But a failure to release F-16s will damage Taiwan's ability to defend itself, he said. "If we don't have the required jets and replacement of vintage fighter aircraft, you lose your leverage."
Yang said Taiwan has the right to defend itself from outside aggression.
He confirmed that Taiwan's military is researching an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon.
Taiwan also is developing new missiles, but Yang would not confirm whether the self-governing island is preparing to field the Hsiung Feng 2E land-attack cruise missile.
Yang said losing Taiwan to China would be catastrophic for U.S. military power in the Asia-Pacific region. If China built military bases on the island, they would threaten U.S. military dominance of the East China Sea and South China Sea.
The deputy defense minister said Washington also would lose a vital intelligence collector.
"We are collecting good stuff," and sharing it with the U.S., he said.
Taiwan's fighters are aging; meanwhile, China revealed in December its J-20 stealth fighter, and it is preparing sea trials of its first aircraft carrier by the end of the year.
Taiwan has 126 Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDFs), 56 Mirage 2000s, 146 F-16A/Bs and about 60 F-5E/F Tigers. The F-5s and Mirages have serious maintenance problems and will be retired within a decade.
Taiwan's state-run Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. is upgrading 71 IDFs, with delivery scheduled by 2014, and it could upgrade the remaining 55 IDFs if the F-16C/Ds are not approved. Taiwan also has an option to build a new C/D variant of the IDF, but this will not fill the fighter gap with China.