Why Taiwan Should Get F-16s

AS part of the peace dividend resulting from the end of the cold war, 6,000 General Dynamics workers soon will lose their jobs. These jobs would have been saved if the Bush administration had not blocked the sale of F-16 fighters to the government of Taiwan.

During the past several years, Taipei's request for purchasing advanced fighters has been repeatedly turned down by Washington for fear of offending the leaders in Beijing. The Bush administration's decision results from the perception of the strategic importance of China in deterring the Soviet expansion within a cold-war context. It is believed the United States should cultivate Beijing's goodwill rather than offend it. Because of the complicated and delicate relations between the two sides of the Taiw an Strait, selling weapons to Taiwan has become one of the most sensitive issues in Chinese-US relations.

Since the Nationalist Party was forced to flee to Taiwan in 1949, Beijing authorities have never abandoned the idea of "liberating" or "reunifying" Taiwan under a communist system. Several major battles were fought in the 1950s and 1960s, and with US assistance the Nationalist government thwarted a communist military invasion and maintained the peace over the Taiwan Strait for three decades.

In recent years, Beijing has launched a wave of "peaceful initiatives" promising that Taiwan can keep its current capitalist economy after reunification under the command of Beijing while the Chinese mainland maintains its communist system. Taipei has rejected Beijing's offer as unacceptable, for if communist leaders could stifle democratic change and suddenly reverse years of economic reform, might not history repeat itself under reunification?

Taipei is also uneasy with Beijing's offer because the communists have repeatedly refused to renounce the use of force against the people of Taiwan. This clearly indicates that the mainland regime is willing to use force to back up its so-called "peaceful initiatives."

For Chinese leaders, the acquisition of new weapons by Taipei can only strengthen Taiwan's ability to resist the "reunification" formula. So far, Beijing has been successful in pressuring Washington not to sell advanced fighters to Taiwan.

Taipei has explored other options for acquiring advanced aircraft. Its recent interest in the French-made Mirage-2000 has gotten a positive response from the Mitterrand government, which is actively promoting the sale of this fighter. In the post-cold-war era, French interest in selling advanced fighters to Taipei is clearly driven by economic motives. It is difficult to understand why the US president is so willing to appease Beijing's leaders at the expense of 6,000 American jobs when the French govern ment is doing just the opposite.

These economic factors should no longer be negated by outdated cold-war considerations. The Soviet Union has disappeared; it is no longer a credible military threat to the US.

Far from being a restraint on an expansionist power, communist China is increasingly engaging in activities that negatively affect American interests around the world, such as selling weapons to Middle Eastern countries. It is simply no longer in the interests of the US to protect the last major communist state. It makes better sense to search out ways to restrain China's influence.

Taiwan is an obvious candidate to help in this endeavor, as it shares US interests in preventing the development of China's hegemony in its region.

Taiwan has been a faithful ally of the US since World War II and has developed from a backward country to become the US`s fifth largest trading partner. It has also developed politically into a budding democracy with a two-party system and genuine elections. Surely such achievements merit consideration when compared to China's determination to preserve its undemocratic political system and its inefficient command economy.

The Taiwan Relations Act was passed by Congress in 1979. It stipulates that the US should "provide Taiwan with arms" to defend itself against threats that could jeopardize its security. This would include threats from China.

It has been argued that there is no military justification for selling Taiwan advanced fighters, since China's obsolete air force and military commitments on the Soviet and Vietnamese borders renders the successful invasion of Taiwan all but impossible. But such arguments are no longer valid because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and rapprochement between China and Vietnam. Beijing has recently acquired 72 advanced Russian-made SU-27 fighters, and Russia will also help China produce the MIG-31 local ly. The change in the international environment and the acquisition of new fighters by China have the potential to fundamentally alter the strategic balance between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Air superiority is vital to Taiwan's security, given the size of its military compared to China's. As the relations between Washington and Beijing became normalized, Taipei's air superiority gradually ebbed away.

The island country currently has about 300 F-5E/F and 100 F-104G aircraft, some of which are more than 20 years old. Taiwan's air force is not only outnumbered but is also increasingly inferior qualitatively to China's. While China has virtually unlimited access to advanced military technology, Taiwan is restricted in the area that is most critical to its defense.

The cold war has ended and the "Evil Empire" has broken up. The strategic importance of China is declining. The Bush administration should stop letting a communist regime dictate its foreign policy. Selling advanced fighters to Taiwan is in America's political interest in Asia, and in its economic interest at home. This sale will also meet the legal and moral commitments to a long-time ally.

Most important, these aircraft will defend a prosperous and democratic country from the mounting threat of the last major communist regime.

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