Josh Rogin of The Cable recently reported that the Obama Administration may be about to reverse its decision not to sell new F-16s to Taiwan. Last fall, the administration, responding to repeated requests by the Taiwanese government asking for approval to acquire more advanced F-16 C/Ds to replace that country’s aging fleet of F-5s, okayed an upgrade program for older model F-16s but seemed to close the door on any sales of newer aircraft. In a letter to Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), Robert Nabors, director of the White House office of legislative affairs, appeared to reopen the issue. Nabors acknowledged the growing disparity in airpower between Taiwan and China. He promised that the newly-confirmed Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia, Mark Lippert would work closely with the Taiwanese government on the transformation of its military. The letter ends by promising that the administration will decide on a near-term course of action to deal with Taiwan’s declining fighter capability “including through the sale to Taiwan on an undetermined number of new U.S.-made fighter aircraft.”
Like all good communiqués between the Executive and Legislative branches, this one was carefully worded so as to appear to be directly addressing Senator Cornyn’s concern regarding the military imbalance across the Taiwan Straits without actually committing the administration to do more than consult and discuss. A subsequent statement to The Cable by the National Security Council spokesman claiming that the letter was wholly consistent with administration policy on Taiwan seemed to suggest that the White House was trying to have it both ways.
Nevertheless, the administration’s words appear to go farther than was strictly necessary in order to satisfy the Senator’s concerns on the subject of Taiwanese air defenses. Moreover, it comes at an important point in time: just as the Pentagon is implementing its new defense strategy with the much ballyhooed “pivot” to Asia. The so-called pivot is all about China and that country’s growing military power. Since the most likely place for a U.S.-China confrontation is over Taiwan, the suggestion that the administration might seriously consider sales of additional F-16s to Taiwan is particularly interesting.
One of the most cost-effective ways of deterring China is by building partner capacity. In the case of Taiwan, this means providing that island nation with the capabilities needed to deny Beijing the prospect for a relatively quick and bloodless military option. As the Pentagon works to flesh out its approach to defeating China’s growing anti-access/area denial capabilities it would help to have strong partners in the region. If the administration really is intent on taking a clean sheet approach to assessing Taiwan’s security requirements it deserves to be complimented for reconsidering its earlier approach.
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