White House bick­er­ing and Tai­wan’s F-16s

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

The “highly per­sonal, of­ten bit­ter an­i­mos­ity ex­ist­ing be­tween se­nior White House of­fi­cials and se­nior Asia play­ers at State” is how one of Washington’s non­pareil for­eign­pol­icy in­sider news­let­ters, Chris Nel­son’s epony­mous Nel­son Re­port, de­scribes the forces at the bot­tom of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s lat­est national se­cu­rity cri­sis: whether to sell 66 new F-16 fight­ers to Tai­wan to re­place un­safe Viet­nam War­era F-5 jets.

Tai­wan has hundreds of sup­port­ers on Capi­tol Hill, and two dozen House mem­bers made a point of greet­ing a vis­it­ing Tai­wanese pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, Tsai Ing-wen, at a re­cep­tion in the Ray­burn House Of­fice Build­ing on Sept. 14. Sev­eral sen­a­tors also made the trek across Capi­tol Hill to show their sup­port, in­clud­ing the ven­er­a­ble Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Demo­crat, chair­man of the Se­nate De­fense ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee, an un­mis­tak­able sig­nal of broad bi­par­ti­san sup­port for U.S. de­fense sales to Tai­wan, es­pe­cially the new F16s.

Also on Sept. 14, an un­named “se­nior Amer­i­can of­fi­cial” phoned a Washington correspondent of the Fi­nan­cial Times, a re­spected Bri­tish news­pa­per, to un­gra­ciously bad­mouth Ms. Tsai. He then de­clared he was speak­ing for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. The State Depart­ment, which had been very sup­port­ive of Ms. Tsai, quickly de­nounced the “se­nior of­fi­cial” and flatly as- serted that who­ever he was, he “cer­tainly did not speak for the ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

The “se­nior of­fi­cial,” who quickly was traced to the National Se­cu­rity Coun­cil staff, ap­par­ently was mo­ti­vated by anx­i­eties that Congress might force the Obama White House to ap­prove new F-16s for Tai­wan.

Be­cause Bei­jing is quite un­happy with any Tai­wanese politi­cian who isn’t whole­heart­edly com­mit­ted to Tai­wan’s uni­fi­ca­tion with China (and Ms. Tsai is not), the “se­nior of­fi­cial” no doubt hoped that dis­cred­it­ing Ms. Tsai would in­gra­ti­ate Mr. Obama to the Chi­nese lead­er­ship.

The Obama White House is on the verge of an­nounc­ing “up­grades” of Tai­wan’s ex­ist­ing fleet of 20-year-old F-16s and wor­ries that China will be dis­pleased.

Trash­ing Ms. Tsai may have been a way to soften the an­nounce­ment with Bei­jing.

The whole episode was bizarre.

Congress sees Tai­wan as an authen­tic Asian democ­racy wor­thy of Amer­ica’s sup­port and, not in­ci­den­tally, a cus­tomer for ad­vanced aero­space weapons sys­tems that would bring 20,000 new jobs to de­pressed de­fense pro­duc­tion lines in Texas, Florida, Ohio and Cal­i­for­nia and keep additional tens of thou­sands of en­gi­neers and skilled tech­ni­cians em­ployed in high-tech in­dus­trial sec­tors that are es­sen­tial to Amer­ica’s eco­nomic re­cov­ery.

Un­der the 1979 Tai­wan Rela- tions Act, the Pen­tagon also has a statu­tory man­date “to main­tain the ca­pac­ity of the United States to re­sist any re­sort to force” and an­other to “make avail­able to Tai­wan such de­fense ar­ti­cles and de­fense ser­vices in such quan­tity as may be nec­es­sary to en­able Tai­wan to main­tain a suf­fi­cient self-de­fense ca­pa­bil­ity.”

The De­fense Depart­ment, there­fore, hopes to keep Tai­wan’s armed forces strong enough to de­fend the is­land be­cause other­wise U.S. forces will have to do the job.

The Pen­tagon has com­pleted a con­gres­sion­ally man­dated re­port on Tai­wan’s air-power re­quire­ments, which, though still clas­si­fied, warns that the mil­i­tary bal­ance in the Tai­wan Strait has tilted de­ci­sively to­ward China. With­out re­place­ment fighter air­craft, Tai­wan will be un­able to de­fend its airspace and the full re­spon­si­bil­ity of de­fend­ing that is­land na­tion will fall com­pletely on the United States. Pen­tagon an­a­lysts also point out that wargamers run­ning the lat­est it­er­a­tion of “Ter­mi­nal Fury” — a sce­nario for a cri­sis in the Tai­wan Strait — can­not see how even the new­est ver­sions of the F-16 could sur­vive a Chi­nese air as­sault for more than a few hours.

Tai­wan’s air force, they say, needs a new fleet of STOVL “short take-off and ver­ti­cal land­ing” jets that can use the is­land’s modern high­ways as run­ways. In short, Tai­wan needs the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, a STOVL jet that is de­signed for ex­port to Amer­ica’s friends and al­lies.

This is where bu­reau­cratic “an­i­mosi­ties” come in. Pres­i­dent Obama’s top Asia ad­vis­ers in the National Se­cu­rity Coun­cil (NSC), Daniel R. Rus­sel and Evan S. Medeiros, are firmly pro-China, or at least do not be­lieve any­thing — any­thing at all — is worth a con­fronta­tion with the Chi­nese. At the State Depart­ment, Kurt Camp­bell, as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for East Asia and the Pa­cific, and his team are firmly pro-ev­ery­body-else in Asia, or at least they do not see how the United States can sus­tain its core in­ter­ests glob­ally — hu­man rights, democ­racy, free­dom, fair trade, free­dom of the seas and airspace, ac­cess to re­sources and a world safe from the ram­pant pro­lif­er­a­tion of nu­clear weapons and their de­liv­ery sys­tems — by ab­jur­ing its global lead­er­ship.

Tai­wan is not a small part of Amer­ica’s se­cu­rity ar­chi­tec­ture. For 60 years, since 1951, the United States has main­tained a ro­bust de­fense and trade re­la­tion­ship with Tai­wan that has been a key link in Amer­ica’s net­work of se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion and al­liances in the Western Pa­cific.

The broad ques­tion de­bated in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is whether the United States will with­draw from Asia in the face of China’s in­ex­orable mil­i­tary rise. Mr. Obama’s NSC ap­par­ently thinks the United States should sim­ply bow to Chi­nese ex­pan­sion, while State and De­fense see Tai­wan as em­blem­atic of Amer­ica’s com­mit­ments to the rest of Asia, from Ja­pan and Aus­tralia through South­east Asia to In­dia. When asked about the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­luc­tance to sell the new F16C/Ds to Tai­wan, State peo­ple cau­tion that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has not ruled out con­sid­er­a­tion of new jets for Tai­wan at some point.

Congress has weighed in on the State-De­fense side. Sev­eral new bills seek to re­quire the ad­min­is­tra­tion to sell the lat­est F16s to Tai­wan, and there is an ap­pre­ci­a­tion on the Hill that sim­ply “up­grad­ing” Tai­wan’s de­ployed fleet of 145 older F16A/Bs, while clearly nec­es­sary, equally clearly is not suf­fi­cient. Congress also sees that sus­tain­ing and cre­at­ing new jobs in Amer­ica’s ad­vanced aero­space sec­tors is es­sen­tial to eco­nomic re­cov­ery.

New jet fighter sales to Tai­wan should be a no-brainer; they help Tai­wan de­fend it­self and they em­ploy U.S. aero­space en­gi­neers.

NSC staffers in the Obama White House, on the other hand, are let­ting “highly per­sonal, of­ten bit­ter an­i­mos­ity” get in the way of national se­cu­rity — and jobs. They also are abet­ting Amer­ica’s de­mo­tion to a sec­ond-class power un­will­ing — but not quite un­able — to chal­lenge the hege­mony of China’s ruth­less, new brand of state mer­can­til­ism in Asia.

John J. Tkacik Jr. is a re­tired of­fi­cer in the U.S. For­eign Ser­vice who served in Bei­jing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.

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