The Obama administration on Monday defended its planned arms package for Taiwan in the face of widespread criticism, saying it had balanced competing pressures in deciding to refurbish the island’s F-16 fighters without selling it any new jets.
Several members of Congress and others had denounced the deal, accusing the administration of caving to Chinese pressure by not allowing Taiwan to buy dozens of new jets to bolster its aging air force.
But an administration official said that by refurbishing existing jets, the United States could maintain its security relationship with Taiwan while not unsettling the island’s precarious dealings with China. The official said the move also allows the administration to continue pursuing “constructive relations with China based on real cooperation on economic and regional security.”
The official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, called the decision “a smart defense policy — it makes a real and immediate contribution to Taiwan’s security.”
At a press briefing in New York, where the U.N. General Assembly was meeting, a second senior administration official said that refurbished F-16s are a cheaper option for what is, “essentially, the same quality.”
The official added, “And we’re obviously prepared to consider further sales in the future.”
Taiwan, however, reacted with disappointment. At a U.S.-Taiwan defense industry conference in Richmond, Andrew N.D. Yang, Taiwan’s vice minister of national defense, told the Reuters news agency, “These years, China is showing stronger and stronger reaction to U.S.-Taiwan arms sales,” which he said has made the United States “more wary with arms sales.”
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Monday that Beijing “firmly opposes” the Obama administration’s plans, but the measured tone suggested that China wanted to register displeasure without pursuing a full-scale confrontation with Washington. The U.S. decision comes at a critical moment for Taiwan, which is gearing up for a January presidential election and is facing serious questions about the abilities of its air force.
Taiwan and its supporters have argued that refurbishing its 145 existing F-16 A/B model jets without selling it 66 new C/D models, as it desires, will cause the island’s air power to diminish. Some of its other older-model jets, such as the F-5, are more than three decades old. And the shortage of planes will be exacerbated as groups of existing F-16s are taken out of commission to go through the offered modification.
“It’s an alarming precedent to make security decisions based on concerns about how China would respond and not on what Taiwan really needs,” said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of U.S.-Taiwan Business Council.
Last year, when President Obama announced a deal to sell $6.4 billion in arms to Taiwan, including missiles, Black Hawk helicopters and mine-clearing ships, China broke off military contact with Washington for months. It later called the proposed sale of new F-16s a “red line” that must not be crossed.
Relations have since improved, after Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington in January and Vice President Biden’s follow-up visit to China last month.