U.S. Correct in Selling F-16 Upgrades, Not New Jets, to Taiwan

Another year and another U.S.-Taiwan arms deal fracas. 

The Obama administration recently informed Congress that the U.S. would sell upgrades to the Taiwanese government to retrofit their fleet of F-16 fighter jets. Unsurprisingly, China firmly denounced the arms deal, though seemingly without the vehemence of previous years. Although pleased to have a deal, even Taiwan was not completely satisfied, as they have been requesting brand new F-16s for several years. However, the Obama administration deferred this decision and acted shrewdly to avoid overly offending either side. As the U.S. tries to minimize discontent in Beijing and respect the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the Obama administration made a savvy agreement that kept all parties equally dissatisfied.

Beijing voiced its opposition to the current shipment of U.S. arms, as they view the Taiwan debate as a domestic concern and take issue with a foreign power seemingly meddling in their internal affairs. However, their condemnations this year seemed to be more formulaic compared to past criticisms. As a result of last years’ $6.4 billion weapons sale, the Chinese suspended military exchanges with the U.S. This year the Chinese realize that the deal could have been worse. Thus, most analysts argue that their reaction will not be as drastic and will not excessively impede bilateral U.S.-Sino relations.

On the other side of the Taiwan Straight, critics feel the U.S. only showed a partial commitment to the defense of Taiwan with the truncated deal. Although the Taiwanese government would certainly rather have the upgrades than not, they argue that the lack of new F-16s adds to the growing defense spending imbalance between mainland China and their own military. The former spent approximately $114 billion compared to the latter’s $8.5 billion in 2010. But even a deal that included the new jets would not put much of a dent in this great disproportion. In addition, the specific upgrades will give their current F-16s many of the same capabilities as the newer model at a lower cost. Despite their dissatisfaction, the Taiwanese air force will receive modern arms and the government will avoid a possibly more negative reaction from the Chinese had the deal for the new F-16s been approved.

Green lighting the complete sale would have caused major setbacks in the hope of increased communication between Beijing and Taipei. It would have worked against the warming relations that some analysts noted over the past few years.   

My firsthand experience in China seconds this promising trend. I interviewed a large group of accomplished and ambitious students all vying for the opportunity to study in Taiwan. They expressed their genuine desire to create cross-cultural exchanges with their fellow students across the Taiwan Straight. The students acknowledged some perceived difficulties in living in Taiwan but argued that a “magnanimous” (yes, their English was impressive) and forward thinking attitude could bring about mutually beneficial change. An increase in student exchange programs will continue to open lines of communication at a grassroots level and hopefully lead to improved relations. All parties need to encourage this form of peaceful dialogue. Sending new fighter jets to Taiwan would have negated these efforts. 

As China’s international clout grows, the Taiwan debate will become an increasingly important issue. In the near term, the Obama administration acted judiciously and balanced its commitment to Taiwan while staying mindful of growing U.S.-Sino ties. Washington’s future arms policy in Taiwan will depend on many aspects — most importantly, the state of Beijing-Taipei relations. Hopefully, the leaders of both governments can take a cue from the natural diplomats they have in their students and move forward magnanimously. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons