President Obama has a problem. Well, he has many but this one is his arms sales strategy, particularly in East Asia. On the one hand, the United States has major security interests in the region as well as very clear commitments to friends and allies. In addition, the Obama Administration has made building partnership capacity and improving relationships with regional friends and allies two pillars of its national security policy. This means providing these friends and allies with the equipment, training, intelligence and support that they need in order to defend themselves. Clearly, the more these countries can do for themselves, the less likely they are to require U.S. military intervention. In addition, when the U.S. sells arms overseas it improves its country’s balance of payments and preserves high paying U.S. jobs.
But, on the other hand, the White House needs good relations with China. Moreover, China knows it has a strong hand; witness its refusal to agree on sanctions against Iran, perhaps the administration’s number one foreign policy priority. When President Obama met last year with President Hu Jintao it was reported that the Chinese leader felt free to warn the leader of the Free World not to sell advanced weapons systems to Taiwan, an ally of more than sixty years.
The administration recently proposed a modest arms package for Taiwan. It consists of two old Osprey mine-hunting ships, 60 Black Hawk helicopters, missiles, machine guns and ammunition, night vision gear, radar equipment and information technology. There is not much in this package that would reverse the PRC’s march towards military dominance in the region. Nevertheless, Beijing responded by threatening sanctions on any U.S. company involved in the arms sales package.
One of the dirty little secrets of U.S. policy towards Taiwan is that both the Bush and Obama Administrations have been unwilling to seriously address the growing military imbalance across the Taiwan Straits, most specifically the increasing disparity in military aircraft. Taiwan badly needs to buy additional F-16s from the United States if it is to have any chance of defending itself. There are reports that the Bush Administration three times refused to accept a letter of request for F-16 fighters from the Taiwanese president. The new Taiwanese president has received indirect messages that the Obama Administration would react the same way as its predecessor on this issue.
The consequences of a failure to move rapidly on sales of F-16s to Taiwan are many. The most obvious is a deterioration in the military balance across the Straits, a weakening of the U.S. relationship with Taiwan and the ability to deter China placed at greater risk. Regional allies such as South Korea and Japan may begin to wonder if the U.S. will have the stomach for selling them the fifth-generation F-35 fighter over China’s objections.
Also, this issue may have consequences for the larger U.S. security objectives of partnership building and relationship strengthening. Without additional near-term sales, the F-16 and F-18 production lines are scheduled to close in a few years. We know that the F-22 line is shutting down. That means that the only fighter aircraft the U.S. will have for export to its allies is the F-35. But there are a host of countries in the world for which the F-35 would be too much airplane or its presence would destabilize regional military balances. If the current production lines close, the U.S. will effectively take itself out of a large part of the global market for fighter aircraft, leaving it to countries such as France, the U.K., Sweden and Russia. The result would be reduced U.S. global influence, a potential loss of credibility with friends and allies, larger foreign trade deficits and the loss of still more high paying jobs.
It is ironic that with respect to Taiwan arms sales, the Obama Administration has decided to follow the Bush Administration’s wrongheaded policy. Even more inexplicably, the White House chose to incur China’s anger by moving forward on an arms sales package to Taiwan without including anything in the deal that would redress the eroding military balance across the Straits. In essence, this was all pain for almost no gain. There is something wrong with an administration that continues a wrongheaded policy from the previous administration, executes it poorly and simultaneously increases problems for the U.S. economy.
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