White House offer to Taiwan doesn’t include new fighter jets

The Obama administration is offering to refurbish Taiwan’s aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets in an arms package that does not include any new jets for the island, said congressional staffers briefed on the plan Friday.

Obama administration officials and congressional staffers say the president has not ruled out selling new F-16s to Taiwan, but their absence in the recently assembled arms package makes a sale unlikely, according to military analysts and members of Congress.

If no new jets are sold to Taiwan, the decision will be seen as a victory by Beijing, which has vehemently opposed any arms sales to the island, and a source of deep frustration for Taipei. It has pressed since 2006 to acquire newer, more sophisticated F-16s to augment its existing fleet of 145 older ones.

The U.S. offer to modernize Taiwan’s F-16s was widely expected and will likely be a bitter consolation prize for the island, which says it desperately needs the new planes.

The decision, which administration officials declined to confirm, provoked an angry reaction from some members of Congress, including Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), whose state has a Lockheed Martin plant that assembles F-16s. He and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) have introduced legislation that would require the Obama administration to sell 66 new jets to Taiwan. A House version also is in the works.

“If the reports are true, today’s capitulation to communist China by the Obama administration marks a sad day in American foreign policy, and it represents a slap in the face to a strong ally and long-time friend,” Cornyn said in a statement issued by his office. “This sale would have been a win-win, bolstering the national security of two democratic nations and supporting jobs for an American workforce that desperately needs them.”

Congressional staffers, meanwhile, are considering measures that would limit the Obama administration’s funds for military-to-military exchanges with China.

The White House told members of Congress on Friday about the new arms package in a classified meeting, according congressional staffers. The news comes at a critical moment for Taiwan, which is gearing up for a January presidential election and is facing serious questions about air power.

About 60 of Taiwan’s warplanes are F-5s dating from the 1970s, known in locally as “flying coffins.” Just this week, two crashed into a mountain during a training exercise, the latest in a string of mishaps with the aircraft.

The accident dominated Taiwanese news reports and reinforced a sense that an island once described by U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” is losing military capability at a time when China’s is growing ever more powerful.

Taiwan would see an outright refusal from Washington as “a very important political signal that indicates perhaps the United States is tipping somewhere else, to China,” said Andrew N.D. Yang, Taiwan’s vice minister of national defense in an interview in Taipei.

Yang warned that a weaker air fleet would mean a greater burden on the U.S. military to protect its ally. Many in the U.S. military, particularly in the Pacific Command, agree and would like Taiwan to acquire new planes, according to current and retired U.S. officials.

The controversy could become a political factor for Taiwan’s current president, Ma Ying-jeou, now campaigning for re-election. Ma, who has repeatedly stressed the need for new planes, was thought to be a shoo-in but now faces a tough challenge from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which is critical of his policy of rapprochement with China and his handling of defense.

Higgins reported from Taipei.

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