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Obama’s Taiwanese AF F-16 Debacle

Friends and Enemies

9:00 AM, Jul 7, 2011 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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As Henry Kissinger used to say, at times it is more dangerous to be America’s friend than its enemy. Further confirmation of this sage observation came on June 24 when the Obama State Department blocked another request by Taiwan to purchase 66 Lockheed Martin F-16C/D fighter aircraft. These are badly needed by the Republic of China's air force to supplement an aging fleet of U.S., French and indigenously-built combat aircraft.

F16

The ROC's request for the F-16 purchase has officially been rejected three times between 2006 and 2007. Several Taiwan supporters in Washington have urged the ROC to submit another request and force the administration to explain its rationale for denying the island nation the ability to defend itself — at a time when the rest of the Asia-Pacific region continues to show concern over an increasingly aggressive and belligerent Chinese military establishment.

But the Taiwanese air force troubles do not end here. A package to upgrade the 146 F-16A/Bs that it purchased in 1992 has also been put on hold. The A/B model F-16s are equipped with nearly 20-year-old technology and need new radars, avionics, and engines in order to survive against the increasingly sophisticated aircraft operated by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force of mainland Communist China.

One would be justified in asking at this point just what defensive military capabilities and weapon systems—if any—would the administration be willing to sell to Taiwan. As it  stands, Washington seems more or less determined to condemn the country to permanent technological inferiority vis-à-vis the mainland, eventually leaving it open to a fait accompli takeover by its Communist neighbor.

Although White House officials and other elected officials are sometimes loath to admit it, Taiwan is one of America’s closest and most important allies. It took June Congressional hearings to remind the Obama administration that the country is our ninth largest trading partner, buying more American products than India and Brazil—two places, incidentally, where the United States has been falling all over itself to sell combat aircraft, and on far more generous terms than the Taiwanese are asking for.

Those testifying also pointed out that Taiwanese firms are one of the major engines of the world’s growth in high-tech industry, and that Taiwan is strategically important to U.S.  trade in Asia. The Republic of China is able to handle more shipping containers than any port in Japan or Korea. It has emerged as a model of Asian democracy and has supported U.S. initiatives in combating international terrorism, poverty and other major world crises, which is more than you can say for Beijing.

There is also very little doubt about the ultimate intentions that Beijing has for this island nation of 23 million people. Chinese military writings speak openly about the need to take control of the “renegade province of Taiwan” (effectively refusing to acknowledge the ROC as a nation-state) in order to give Beijing the ability to project power into and control regional sea lanes and beyond.

More ominously, the Chinese military have recently announced that the Varyag aircraft carrier that was constructed during the Soviet era—acquired by China from Ukraine's Nikolayev shipyards more than a decade ago—may not only put to sea this year, but also will be receiving a new, official Chinese name.

The Varyag was purchased by Beijing for the announced purposed of turning it into a floating hotel and casino to be tied up at a pier in Macau. This despite the fact that authorities in the former Portuguese enclave declared in advance of the sale that they would not allow the Varyag to be based there, and the owner of the company purchasing the ship also failed to secure a casino license from the Macau authorities.

Not surprisingly, the Ukrainian carrier instead ended up being towed to the Dalian naval shipyards and has been undergoing a re-fit for years in order to make it an operational combat aviation vessel. Rumors are that the ship will be renamed the Shi Lang, the name of a Qing Dynasty admiral. In 1682 Shi conquered the Kingdom of Tungning—a territory known more commonly today as Taiwan.

This is a politically charged message—more than “just symbolic” say Taiwanese and U.S. defense analysts familiar with the history of the Chinese carrier program. “This is beyond the usual ‘Taiwan shuyu Zhongguo’ (Taiwan belongs to China) rhetoric," one told me. "It is Beijng telegraphing that ‘sooner or later we are going to take back our island whether you like it or not.’”

Back in March, Obama defended the U.S. role in the current Libyan crisis, saying “to brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and—more profoundly—our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are.” It’s a pity he does not feel the same generous impulses to provide military assistance to one of our closest and most loyal allies.

Reuben F. Johnson is an aerospace and defense writer based in Kiev

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