Defense News reports today that the Obama Administration will turn down Taiwan’s request to purchase 66 new F-16 fighters, aircraft the island nation says it needs to counter a regional military buildup by the People’s Republic of China. China has challenged the legitimacy of Taiwan’s government ever since it was set up by nationalist forces fleeing the mainland following the revolution that put communists in power in Beijing. Washington ended formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979 when it recognized Beijing as the government of China, however under the Taiwan Relations Act signed into law that same year, the U.S. government is required to supply the island with weapons suitable for defending against an attack from the mainland. Taiwan began requesting new F-16s for that purpose in 2006.
According to reporter Wendell Minnick of Defense News, the Obama Administration bowed to Chinese pressure by deciding not to approve purchase of 66 new F-16 C/Ds, which Taiwan’s air force would have used to replace the oldest fighters in its fleet. Instead, a U.S. government delegation visiting the capital of Taipei proposed upgrades to 146 existing F-16 A/B fighters in the Taiwanese inventory. A/B variants are the oldest versions of a fighter that first debuted in 1980. The U.S. delegation argued they could be kept operationally relevant through the introduction of new electronically scanned radars, defensive countermeasures and smart bombs. However, Minnick quotes an unnamed Taiwanese military official saying, “we are so disappointed in the United States” for declining to supply new F-16s.
The official has good reason to be disappointed, because even with improved on-board equipment, the earlier versions of the F-16 can’t match the performance of new-build fighters in the more advanced C/D configuration. If the White House really has decided not to sell any new planes, Taiwan will be more susceptible to military pressure from Beijing — which remains, for all its progressive flourishes, a communist dictatorship. Washington’s stance will be interpreted in some quarters as evidence that China’s rising economic and military power is forcing an American retreat in the Western Pacific. U.S. allies in the area are anxious for signs that Washington is still committed to balancing Beijing’s regional ambitions, so any decision not to meet the defensive needs of a fellow democracy is likely to be viewed with alarm. Recent letters to the White House signed by 47 Senators and 181 members of the House of Representatives have warned of the security consequences if Taiwan’s request for new F-16s is rebuffed.
But that is not the only drawback from failing to sell Taiwan new weapons with which to defend itself. According to reporter Minnick, the sale of 66 new F-16s would have been worth $8 billion and generated 16,000 jobs in the U.S. at a time when Chinese exports are gradually hollowing out much of the U.S. industrial base. It’s no secret China’s export-driven growth is made possible in part by mercantilist trade policies that violate the letter and the spirit of the agreement allowing that country to join the World Trade Organization. Those policies have enabled China to surpass the U.S. in the production of everything from steel to electronics, and according to the International Monetary Fund have now put the Chinese economy on a vector to surpass the size of America’s in 2015 (China ran a trade surplus of $32 billion last month, while America’s trade deficit — largely with China — was in excess of $50 billion).
So the willingness of the Obama Administration to pass up 16,000 jobs and billions of dollars in export earnings because of pressure from Beijing suggests that it is dreadfully out of touch not only with security trends in the Western Pacific, but also with what is needed to get America growing again.
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