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. 

Chiang Ying-ying/AP/File
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.

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.

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.

Behind the US refusal to send F-16s last fall

Selling F-16s toward the end of 2011 during a heated presidential campaign would have been seen as favoring Mr. Ma over his two chief rivals. In September the US government declined Taiwan’s request for 66 C/D jets and instead offered to upgrade older F-16s, part of a $5.85 billion arms package. Taiwan expressed disappointment but thanked the US for offering to upgrade the older jets. China voiced opposition to the arms package but did not take follow-up action.

China is now in the middle of a political transition. President Hu Jintao may cede some of his powers to senior Communist Party leader Xi Jinping as early as year’s end. The sudden fall of China’s best known corruption-buster, Bo Xilai, sheds further doubt about future leadership. Internal confusion may temper any response to Washington’s signal for a sale.

“Because of some of the top power struggles taking place now in Beijing, that gives the US tremendous leverage and gives Taiwan a chance to upgrade,” says Liu Yi-jiun, public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan.

The US may use that leverage to pressure China on regional security issues, from Taiwan to Beijing’s growing clout in the disputed South China Sea, when top US Asian affairs diplomat Kurt Campbell holds talks in Beijing this week, says Raymond Wu, managing director of the political risk consultancy e-telligence in Taipei.

“Washington understands there’s a lot on China’s plate,” he says. “There are a lot of domestic issues they need to address.”

Why the US has warmed to F-16 sale

Some of Washington’s sudden willingness to sell F-16s may rest at home. President Obama, campaigning for reelection in November, faces critics who say he has grown too close to China in seeking economic partnerships. The White House wrote in a letter to Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas on Friday that the notion of selling F-16s should get “serious consideration, given the growing military threat to Taiwan.”

Obama’s likely Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, has also voiced a tough line on China, pressuring the incumbent to follow by appearing to veer closer to Beijing’s rival Taipei, says Mr. Wu. A massive F-16 deal would also protect, or create, US jobs.

“Romney has been very tough on China regarding their civil rights and all,” he says. “Maybe there is an angle to this: In the upcoming election, the Obama administration is also taking a tougher position.”

Air defense is clearly on the US radar, though an actual F-16 sale would take one or two years if approved. “Our sales have made a significant contribution to Taiwan’s air defense capabilities including by upgrading the backbone capability of Taiwan’s air force,” the de facto embassy said in a statement on Monday, citing arms packages in 2010 and 2011.

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