Over the past several years the U.S. government has pursued a policy of aggressively promoting the sale of advanced military equipment to the Middle East and South Asia. Just last year the administration agreed to a massive arms sale to Saudi Arabia involving some 84 F-15 fighters, Apache and Black Hawk helicopters and a thousand GPS-guided bombs. The UAE is getting a more advanced version of the F-16 fighter, the Block 60 Desert Falcon, than is in the U.S. inventory. Washington has offered Israel an early bite at the F-35 apple. In South Asia, the U.S. has sold India some $9 billion worth of C-17s, P-8s and C-130Js. Until last week the most advanced versions of Lockheed Martin’s F-16 and Boeing’s F/A-18 were candidates for the Indian medium multi-role combat aircraft program.
The principal goal of these arms sales is not to promote conflict in their respective regions. Nor is it to make money, although foreign arms sales are one of the few areas where the United States maintains a positive balance of payments. Instead, these sales are intended to promote peace and stability by ensuring that a balance of forces exists between U.S. friends and allies and their adversaries. In the Middle East, the primary concern is Iran which is steadily building up its ballistic missile forces. In South Asia, the challenge to India comes largely from China which is engaged in a steady modernization of its air and missile forces.
So why is it that the U.S. practices one kind of arms sales strategy in the Middle East and South Asia and another in East Asia? Specifically, even as China continues to build up its military forces opposite Taiwan, the United States is failing to act on the request from that island democracy for the sale of F-16 fighters. Taiwan’s Air Force consists largely of aging F-5 and older model F-16 fighters. An imbalance of airpower is emerging across the Taiwan Straits that could lead to instability and even conflict.
Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou seems to understand something that the Obama Administration does not. The path to peace is created by the ability to defend oneself. In making the case for the sale to his country of additional F-16s, President Ma said recently to a Washington audience that with respect to Taiwan-China relations, “the right leverage must be in place. Otherwise Taiwan cannot credibly maintain an equal footing at the negotiating table.”
Both the Obama Administration and its predecessor chose not to act on Taiwan’s request for additional F-16s out of fear of offending China. No doubt there would be a reaction from Beijing. But far worse than a temporary worsening of relations between the United States and China would be a situation in which the latter ever thought that it could militarily coerce the island nation. That kind of crisis produces wars. It makes far better sense to restore to the area the military balance that existed before Beijing began its latest round of military deployments opposite Taiwan. Selling F-16s to Taiwan can help promote peace and even dialogue between that country and the mainland.
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