In the space of a week, Taiwan has both criticized and cozied up to the US, highlighting an effort to appear strong at home in the face of a rising China while not isolating its staunchest arms supplier.
Taiwan’s deputy Defense minister criticized the United States government for declining to sell it 66 advanced F-16 C/D fighter jets, but called Washington’s proposal to upgrade older F-16s a welcome step toward keeping the island strong against Beijing’s fast-growing military.
On one side, Taiwan must accept whatever US officials offer it militarily, as no other country will supply it with weapons to defend itself against China, a political rival of more than 60 years, experts say.
On the other, they say, Taiwan must keep pressure on Washington to buy more arms if it is to confidently face China in trade talks and impress voters at home. Over the past five years, Taiwan has issued increasingly impassioned pleas for the F-16 sale.
The US offer to upgrade the Taiwan’s older-model F-16 A/Bs marks “progress” in the “incremental process” of improving its military, Deputy Defense Minister Andrew Yang said in a phone interview Saturday.
But, days later, Mr. Yang griped to a US-Taiwan defense industry conference in the United States that Washington had caved to pressure from Beijing in putting off the request for more jets.
After the announcement in Washington, Taiwan’s Defense ministry noted it appreciated the upgrade offer but that it still wanted the late-model F-16s, among other weaponry, as the US had not ruled out a sale later.
“The Ministry of National Defense will continuously communicate with relevant US agencies to urge the approval” of new arms, the statement said.
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The island government is also seen as torn between an arms strategy that answers demands at home but also fosters better ties with China.
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s government has lobbied hard for the domestically popular F-16 C/D sale in part to appear tough on China ahead of the Jan. 14 presidential election, analysts say.
The Defense ministry said in its statement that Mr. Ma had arranged procured arms packages worth $18.3 billion – more than either of the two previous presidents were able to procure.
“Ma’s government is not really serious about getting more defensive weapons from the US because he doesn’t want to irritate the PRC [China],” says Shane Lee, political scientist with Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. “But for average Taiwanese people, we’re very concerned that we’re far behind China in military terms.”
Ma’s government has eased tension with China since 2008 through regular talks on trade and economic issues, reducing any immediate military threat even as Beijing outspends the island on defense.
China protested to the United States, however, after US officials proposed a $5.85 billion weapons package to Taiwan, mainly upgrades to an F-16 A/B fleet totaling 145 planes sold since 1992.
Beijing has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s forces, and fled to the island. Beijing has never renounced the threat of force if Taiwan moves toward formal independence.
China is likely to respond to the US move with public protests, analysts say, adding that China’s protest over the F-16 upgrade proposal will fizzle, but that any sale of F-16s would be a major setback in Sino-US relations.
The US considers China a crucial economic partner and hopes to avoid a repeat of January 2010, when Beijing suspended military exchanges after the US proposal of a $6.4 billion arms package for Taiwan.
The US has been Taiwan's staunchest informal ally for 60 years, with a congressional act that allows it to help with the island’s military defense.
US officials argue that upgrading Taiwan’s existing fighters will effectively be the same as selling it new ones, with Taiwan calling them just 80 percent as good.
“Privately, at least, they will keep asking for the C/Ds because they have to show the voters ‘we’re doing our best, we are for defense,’ ” Mr. Lin says.
The public’s agenda also may have diplomatic and military merit. A senior US envoy to Taiwan has said a strong defense gives Taiwan more weight at the economic bargaining table even when ties are tighter.
“This, I think, is something the current government has been trying, and the opposition, if it returns to power some day, will continue to pursue advanced weapons from the United States,” says Raymond Wu, managing director of the Taipei-based political risk consultancy e-telligence.