A Precedent Setting Sale in the Taiwan Straits

If lawmakers agree that Taiwan’s situation is dire, arms sales could bring its capabilities on par with China’s.

An F-16 fighter jet in service with the Republic of China Air Force prepares for takeoff, September 30, 2011 (Al Jazeera English)
An F-16 fighter jet in service with the Republic of China Air Force prepares for takeoff, September 30, 2011 (Al Jazeera English)

The House of Representatives in the United States ordered the sale of more advanced F-16 multirole fighters to Taiwan this month. The move, a big step forward for Taiwan in preparing for the future, may be precedent setting in more ways than one and could inspire new thinking in both Beijing and Taipei.

While the sale of warplanes to Taiwan is yet to be approved by the Senate and the president, congressional success in the lower house represents a breakthrough for those Republican leaders in Washington who have long favored greater military and financial support for the island based Republic of China.

Until now, the White House has been reluctant to play too large of a role in helping the government in Taipei develop its military capabilities, arguing that the country’s strategic situation was not dire enough to merit enraging mainland China and risk the collapse of presently friendly relations.

It is certainly the case that American support of Taiwan has not been nonexistent. Last year, President Barack Obama ok’ed a $5.2 billion plan to upgrade Taiwan’s 145 strong fleet of F-16s fighters, a plane that has been operational since the 1990s and is increasingly unable to match the more advanced modern technologies being installed on the aircraft of the People’s Republic of China.

However, the administration has consistently refused to consider new equipment purchases, ignoring the pleas of the pro-Taiwan lobby in Washington at the time to consider the sale of submarines, advanced fighters and other assets seen as vital to balancing against China.

That being said, the balance of opinions in the American capital may be changing. Though not necessarily linked to the House’s decision to sell, the Pentagon’s recently released annual assessment of the military strength of mainland China has surely galvanized support among those concerned for Taiwanese security prospects.

In describing Chinese advances in amphibious and ballistic missile technologies, the report focuses on China’s maturing anti-intervention capabilities, particularly those forces that could suppress Taiwan’s defense systems in a future assault while, at the same time, effectively preventing American reinforcements from rendering aid.

Given the Pentagon’s appraisal, it is easy to see why the sale of new, more capable fighters to Taiwan could alter the balance of capabilities in the Straits in years to come.

Most importantly, it is easy to see how authorities in Beijing, already voicing their disapproval of the House’s decision, could adopt a more standoffish approach to cross-Straits relations in the future.

However, the sale of General Dynamic’s fighter may go beyond reaffirming America’s commitment to securing Taiwan and could do more that just pave the way for frosty relations with the China. Indeed, the sale hints at possible future interactions between Taipei and Washington that could, given the goal of appropriately arming the island against the Chinese threat, cause leaders in Beijing to rethink strategies involving reunification entirely.

One dangerous precedent being set by the sale of advanced F-16 fighters is that of availability. If lawmakers in Washington can be persuaded that Taiwan’s situation is dire, then future sales may bring the island’s armed forces capabilities at the cutting edge of modern weaponry. The purchase of craft like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and cutting edge ballistic defense systems could significantly neutralize mainland China’s abilities to quickly strike Taiwan, with missile interceptors countering the mainland’s airborne first strike forces and short takeoff planes allowing Taiwan’s air force to operate even beyond the destruction of conventional military facilities.

Such new sales could even happen in the near term. After all, with access to both upgrades for existing F-16s and the opportunity to purchase new advanced variants, Taipei’s defense bill is creeping higher and higher.

It might make more sense to abandon one or the other in favor of procuring advanced platforms that, ultimately, will allow the island to compete with China on a more even footing than would ever have been possible flying legacy craft.

Regardless of the shape of deals to come, however, it is fairly clear that America’s latest move is precedent setting beyond what is normal in cross-Straits relations. Sure, it seems plausible to predict a period of frostiness with China similar to those experienced after previous weapons sales. But here, ultimately, there is the potential for a much bigger shift in strategic thinking.

Access to new forces changes the trend in increasingly unbalanced capabilities that has characterized that part of the world for many years. If Taiwan is finally getting what it needs to compete militarily with mainland China, Beijing will need to look more closely at the feasibility of reunification and reassess the steps needed to get there.

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