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Why is the US considering F-16 sales to Taiwan?

Political shifts in China, Taiwan, and the US have revived the prospect of a US F-16 deal with Taiwan. 

By Correspondent / May 1, 2012

In this April 2011 file photo, a Taiwan Air Force F-16 fighter lands on a section of highway during a military drill in Madou, Tainan city, south of Taiwan. The US is considering F-16 sales to Taiwan in order to send China a signal of US strength.

Chiang Ying-ying/AP/File

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Taipei, Taiwan

In September, the United States politely told Taiwan it would not sell its late-model F-16 fighter jets to help Taiwan keep up with the military might of China. Taiwan was disappointed. China's response was low key.

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This month, however, the White House said the sale deserved “serious consideration.” This announcement comes despite the fact that China sees any sale of the F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan as a red line in its relationship with the US. Nothing has happened yet, but a prolonged protest and suspension of Sino-US exchanges are expected if the sale goes through – similar to China’s reaction in January 2010 when a $6.4 billion Taiwan arms package was approved.

Why the change of tone?

The answer lies in a constellation of political events within Taiwan, the US, and China. At the core, Washington wants to sell F-16s to Taiwan in order to send China a signal of US strength at a weak juncture in the Chinese leadership and during a calm political period in Taiwan.

China and Taiwan are enjoying a high point in their relationship. And the US has never totally opposed the multibillion-dollar deal to sell fighter jets to Taiwan, despite its rejection last year, say analysts; The US has only been waiting for the right conditions. Because China may be too preoccupied with its own leadership transition to cause much of a stink about the mention of F-16s, the time is perfect to put a sale into the approval pipeline, say analysts.  

“The basic bottom line is that the US is determined to sell,” says George Tsai, political scientist at Chinese Cultural University in Taipei. “Taiwan is certainly going to buy, and China will of course oppose. All three parties have to find a compromise. The US understands that China might not want to over-react, and it also doesn’t want to overly offend China.” 

Why tensions have eased

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who was reelected in January, has worked since taking office in 2008 to break six decades of tension with China through trade talks and informal exchanges – an effort that the de facto US embassy in Taipei lauded in a statement on Monday.

The US publicly supports Mr. Ma’s quest to avoid a war. Raymond Burghardt, chairman of the de facto embassy in Taipei, has said that Washington sees new weapons systems as a way to shore up Taiwan's position of strength when bargaining with China, which has 5,176 aircraft compared to Taiwan’s 837.

However, China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the 1940s and has still not renounced the use of force to unify the two sides.  Past Taiwan presidents sought the island’s formal independence, but as China reiterated its threat of force, the US was cautious about inflaming tension by selling arms.

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