US decision to upgrade F-16s in Taiwan draws domestic flak, opposition from China

Updated On: Sep 20, 2011

The Obama administration has decided not to sell new F-16s to Taiwan, but to upgrade Taiwan’s existing F-16 fleet instead. According to people briefed on the decision, the administration’s reasoning is that upgrading the older F-16s would allow Taiwan to defend itself but avoid a major spat with China, which opposes any arms sales to Taiwan.

Nonetheless, the decision has drawn criticism from Taiwan supporters in Congress. Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said on Friday, "If the reports are true, today’s capitulation to Communist China by the Obama administration marks a sad day in American foreign policy, and it represents a slap in the face to a strong ally and longtime friend."

Mr. Cornyn and Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, last week introduced legislation mandating that the US sell Taiwan the F-16s under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act that requires the US to supply Taiwan with arms to defend itself. Production of the F-16s also provides for hundreds of jobs in Texas and New Jersey.

Administration officials noted that the upgrade of Taiwan’s fleet of 145 F-16s is logical because it would take less time and effort as compared to building new planes. In January 2010, the Obama administration agreed to sell Patriot missiles, Black Hawk helicopters and communications equipment worth $6.4 billion to Taiwan, but postponed the more sensitive decision on F-16s. Jeffrey A. Bader, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, suggested that notions of US "capitulation to China" are simply "attacks [that] are partisan rather than security based".

The Obama administration is eager to avoid another diplomatic spat with China, having recently mended military relations with the country.

Report: No New F-16’s for Taiwan, but U.S. to Upgrade Fleet (New York Times, 18 Sep 2011)

The US has been putting great effort into fostering ties with the incoming Chinese leadership, led by Xi Jinping, who is expected to take over as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party late next year.

China’s initial reaction to reports of the decision have been comparatively measured, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman reaffirming Monday that "China firmly opposes US arms sales to Taiwan," in contrast to acrimonious commentary in the state-controlled media in response to previous support from pro-Taiwan US lawmakers for F-16 sales to Taiwan.

The People’s Daily earlier said in a commentary that the Taiwan Relations Act was a "cancer". It added that "madmen" on Capitol Hill could pay a "disastrous price" if they sold advanced weaponry to Taiwan, and warns, "A word of advice for those muddleheaded congressmen: don't go too far, don't play with fire."

Report: US to announce Taiwan arms deal (Financial Times, 19 Sep 2011)

Report: China paper tells U.S. not to play with fire over Taiwan (Reuters, 9 Sep 2011)

Taiwan reacted with disappointment at the decision. Andrew Yang, Taiwan’s vice minister of national defence, remarked at a US-Taiwan defense industry conference in Richmond, "These years, China is showing stronger and stronger reaction to U.S.-Taiwan arms sales," which he commented has made the US "more wary with arms sales." The US decision comes amid Taiwan’s coming presidential election in January and with Taiwan facing questions about its air force capabilities.

Report: Obama administration defends decision not to sell new F-16s to Taiwan(Washington Post, 20 Sep 2011)

Related Article