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Opinion

Obama forfeits respect in Asia by letting Taiwan down – hard

Vice President Biden is expected to apprise China of the US decision to deny F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan. The dire implications of this should not be played down. It leaves Taiwan vulnerable and the US underpowered in Asia, as Washington looks to be walking away from democratic values.

By Julian Baum / August 17, 2011



Andover, Mass.

Over the past three decades, Taiwan has been in many tight spots in mounting a credible defense against the People’s Republic of China. Yet none has been as uncomfortable as now.

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The island republic is staring into a very near future when it can no longer defend its own airspace, and when deterrence across the Taiwan Strait morphs into military dominance by China.

The trends would be less worrying if the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 were taken more seriously in Washington. But the US role as guarantor of Taiwan’s ability to defend itself under the law is under steady assault, both from within the American bureaucracy and foreign policy community and from furious lobbying by Beijing.

For its part, Taipei has gone public in recent months as it became more doubtful that the Obama administration would accept their most urgent arms request, the purchase of new F-16 C/D jet fighters.

But its pleas are being ignored, despite the backing of the US Congress. Each house of Congress has sent letters to President Obama signed by nearly half of the elected representatives from both political parties. The letters urge him to follow through with the weapons sale.

The crisis has been long in coming. Taiwan has been trying to acquire the newer C/D version of the F-16 since 2006, along with upgrades to its older F-16 A/B models and more sophisticated radar systems. The new fighters would replace its remaining operational F-5s, which are scheduled for retirement in 2014, and French Mirage fighters.

But for the past five years, according to press reports, the State department under two administrations has quietly prohibited Taiwan’s representatives from even submitting a letter of request that would initiate the lengthy process of agency reviews, essentially freezing the transaction before it could begin.

So the news this week that the Obama administration has decided against selling the new F-16s was not unexpected. It still came as a shock. American officials claim that no decision has been made and promise an announcement by Oct. 1. But the telltale signs are apparent, say knowledgeable sources. They include Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Beijing this week where he is expected to apprise his hosts of President Obama’s “compromise” – to sell upgrades for Taiwan’s existing F-16s and advanced radar, but no new aircraft.

Dire consequences

The dire implications of this concession should not be played down. So far, no one has identified a trade-off for the accommodation, other than the banalities of continuing “business as usual” with a China that has inserted itself commercially and diplomatically into nearly every corner of the globe as a fiscal and economic powerhouse.

For Taiwan, the decision must be confusing and dispiriting. “We are behaving in self-contradictory ways toward Taiwan,” says China historian Arthur Waldron, Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania. ”The explanation would appear to be that either we don’t want them to resist [China], or that we don’t think they will be attacked.”

The conspicuous inadequacy of Washington’s compromise to Taiwan’s security needs could also be destabilizing.

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