Monday, June 29, 2009

Where are my F-16s?

I thought a while back that the Administration might come round to selling F-16s to Taiwan, and sure enough, lots of clues coming out this week in the media that we might see a breakthrough on that front....

First, the Taipei Times reported the other day that the dawn is breaking in Washington....
Another source said that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) had greatly pleased the Obama administration with his pro-China policies that have reduced tensions across the Taiwan Strait and there was an inclination to help him because China continues a massive arms buildup and it has not reduced the number of missiles it has pointed at Taiwan.
That's right folks -- tension is caused by China, not Taiwan. The article went on to say...
Beijing may have decided to send Wang to Washington following reports earlier this month that there was a general consensus on Capitol Hill in favor of selling F-16s to Taiwan.


For its part, the Obama administration has remained very quiet on the subject.

However, Kurt Campbell, speaking during his Senate confirmation hearing last week as assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, said there were “discussions under way right now” on the outstanding request for arms sales to Taiwan.

Democratic Senator Jim Webb, chairman of the Foreign Relations Asia subcommittee, asked Campbell what he thought about supplying Taiwan with F-16 fighters, Black Hawk helicopters and design assistance for diesel electric submarines.

“There are specifics — discussions under way right now. I’m not in the Department of State, so I’m not going to comment on them,” Campbell said.

His remarks were the first official confirmation that the Obama administration is working on future arms sales to Taiwan.
AP had a similar report based on AIT head Steve Young's recent remarks...
Speaking to reporters in Taipei, Young said Washington will continue to help Taiwan enhance its security and the sale of the 66 F-16 C/D jets is still on the table.

"As (senior officials) get into place, they will continue to look closely at this whole question," Young said, adding Washington does not consult with Beijing on arms sales to Taiwan.

Young cited Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, National Security adviser Jeffrey Bader, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Wallace Gregson as officials who will be involved in the F-16 matter.
Finally, Taiwan News has an in-depth report on Young's remarks:
The United States is not concerned that advanced military technologies will be leaked to China through its weapon sales to Taiwan because Taiwan is capable of protecting such technologies, the top U.S. envoy to Taiwan said Friday.

"I don't really think there is a great concern about the transfer of technology from Taiwan because I think that Taiwan has very effective means in the controlling of technology, " Stephen M. Young, director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) , said at a biannual press conference.


Young said that while the U.S. welcomes the reduction of tensions between Taiwan and China, it is also aware of the People's Republic of China's relentless military buildup -- much of it directed at Taiwan -- and the Ma Ying-jeou administration's interest in continuing to pursue security cooperation with the U.S.

"I think that the Obama administration will calculate the requests of our Taiwan friends in that light and act at an appropriate time when there are decisions about what types of defensive weapons might make the most sense to provide this island, " he said.
Interesting that Young deliberately links the "reduction of tensions" -- a totally false construction much used in US policy circles, the level of tension being controlled by China, not Taiwan, and amenable to reduction at any time, not just when a right-wing Chinese nationalist is president of Taiwan -- with the military buildup. It almost looks to my jaundiced eye that Young is using his latter observation about the buildup to cancel out the former observation about the illusory "reduction of tensions," as if to say -- tensions are really still here. Good for you, Steve.

And note that both in DC and in Taipei, US officials are saying that the weapons sale to Taiwan is a direct response to the continuing Chinese military build up. Good on ya. As the Taipei Times reported two days ago:
Two sources said Wang Yi argued that greatly improved relations across the Taiwan Strait meant that the chances of military confrontation were dramatically reduced and that Taiwan no longer needed to increase defenses, adding that if the US went ahead with the sales it would have a strong negative impact on China-US relations.

But the US side replied that China’s own military buildup and failure to reduce the large missile force Beijing has aimed at Taiwan did not give Washington much confidence in Wang’s argument.

One source said: “The US response was that: ‘We don’t arm Taiwan to turn it into an offensive threat, we arm Taiwan in response to the PLA force modernization and the threat it poses to Taiwan.’”
Clearly US officials link Taiwan's defense to China's expansionist dreams.

Young also says that the US is not concerned that US technology will fall into Chinese hands, although the media has consistently reported that many in Washington are worried about that. What gives?

Currently, we are still awaiting official word. While we wait, the US is considering upgrading the existing fleet of F-16s...

(hat tip to Raj and Marc and others for sending me links)
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Dixteel said...

Young's recent remarks are kind of interesting...other than the statements mentioned above, there is also the KMT "playing politics" confession, and the "Taiwan's democracy is not mature yet" statement.

I found those statements quite refreshing. Because he is a diplomat, I wonder how much more stuff he wants to say but cannot say.

Still too early to tell if the F-16 C/D purchase can go through smoothly. But it's nice to see the US taking a firmer stance.

Raj said...

Dixteel, of course it's far from assured, but I think it's better than 50/50. The State Department has normally been the part of the US administration that tried to put the break on arms sales to Taiwan. Steinberg and Campbell are fairly pro-Taiwan, so unless Clinton is unusually pro-China she's going to listen to their advice. The Pentagon has been and still is for more sales. That would suggest consensus could form much more easily than during the Bush years.

The planned upgrades for the F-16s are as important, maybe more so. People are getting excited about new jets, but avionics upgrades, better countermeasures, etc for the existing fleet might be better. Taiwan can always produce new, upgraded IDFs to fill the gap that will be vacated by the F-5s. Of course more, modern F-16s would be better.

Anonymous said...

What about buying the Grippen from Sweden? Some see it as a lower cost alternative (maintenance) to the F-16. If the US won't sell, how about the Swedes?

China couldn't threaten Sweden militarily and economically, it'd be very difficult for China to target Sweden without targeting all of the EU.

Dixteel said...

Oh, Raj, in this instance I am not really worried about the US side. I am worried about Ma. There are possibilities that he will chicken out under Chinese pressure and use different excuses to block it again.

Most likely he will not be in the front. But his pawns and dogs in the legislature and the military might do it for him. This request for purchase might just be another Ma show.

But I am just speculating on the possibilities given Ma's past record. It is still very likely to go through...even if not smoothly.

Raj said...

What about buying the Grippen from Sweden? Some see it as a lower cost alternative (maintenance) to the F-16. If the US won't sell, how about the Swedes?

They won't sell either. I don't know why but that's the way it is. Regardless of whether or not European countries could make sales without too many negative repercussions, they don't see it as worth the trouble.

Raj said...

Dix, I think that past arms purchase delays on the KMT side were due to posturing and trying to make the DPP look bad. That's why the taps were turned on towards the end of 2007 when the general election was coming up - the KMT didn't want to hamstring themselves in office on defence. Also even before the Patriot missiles and submarine research money was authorised, funding for the F-16s was approved. I don't believe Ma or the KMT have ever blocked the F-16 purchase - the legislative only put the funds on hold until the then DPP administration could get pricing data from Washington to show they would sell them.

There have been some comments about whether Taiwan is serious about buying the new fighters, but I think that's from people who want an excuse not to sell. If Ma were to back down now then the US would probably give up on selling arms to him for the rest of his presidency (even a future one). He won't do that because even if he wants to make unification inevitable he needs assets like a decent military to win favourable terms.