It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Obama administration, fearing another rupture in its hard-earned progress in restoring military ties with China’s People's Liberation Army (PLA), is hesitant to address the growing gap in air power capabilities in the Taiwan Straits. It’s being reported that the administration has tried to thwart public awareness of its refusal to sell F-16 C/Ds by exerting pressure on Taiwan to refrain from requesting a sale altogether.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration remains ambiguous about upgrading Taiwan’s existing fleet of F-16 A/Bs. Even without the deployment of a carrier-based air wing or a new fifth-generation stealth fighter, the quantity and quality improvements in the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) are thought to already be sufficient to achieve air superiority during a Taiwan contingency. Recognizing the tide may have already turned in favour of the PLAAF with it having achieved air superiority, military analysts and sympathetic legislators are now pushing to increase pressure on the administration to live up to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) by providing Taiwan with better equipment.
A source of contention arises from the third joint communiqué between the United States and China in 1982 that assured China that the US would gradually decrease arms sales to Taiwan, with the goal of ceasing them altogether at some future date. This provision has created an ongoing debate that will likely continue for at least the near future. However, there are some wrinkles to the current situation that may necessitate quick and nimble responses.
The first difference is that the F-16 production line could be permanently shut down if no new orders are received by the end of this year. On the surface, it appears that this will prompt the typical reaction by the military industrial complex to push arms sales in order to boost revenues and save jobs. But this time things are different. After the F-16 production line closes, there will be no other similar US fighter jets to sell to Taiwan. And other foreign militaries are probably less likely to anger China with sales of their own planes. After the F-16, the only options that could address the problem would be even more capable planes, like the F-35. If Beijing strongly disapproves of the sale of F-16s to its renegade province, the sale of more advanced aircraft would likely evoke exponentially stronger protests from China.
Another difference is how the debate is coinciding with US electoral cycles. Arms sales to Taiwan have been a part of US presidential politics before. However, awareness of and potential resentment toward China has rarely been so heightened. China’s rise has increasingly taken the lead in US geopolitical calculations of both policymakers and average voters. The last mid-term election saw a trend toward anti-China pandering on the economic front, and, since that time, China’s image has plunged in the eyes of many Americans because of its perceived belligerence. The underdog story of Taiwan, with its liberal, democratic society, could become prominent in the foreign policy debates of the next presidential election if the arms sale debate is still simmering.
A final difference in the current situation is that Beijing and Washington have a rare convergence of interests in the next Taiwanese election. Both sides would prefer to see Ma Ying-jeou re-elected. But to secure victory, Ma will likely have to prove to Taiwanese voters that he isn’t selling out their hard-fought de facto sovereignty with his pro-mainland policies. Ma could help his re-election chances if he could show to the Taiwanese electorate that he’s still prepared to defend the island from any unilateral move toward reunification by the PLA. US arms sales could be a clear signal that Ma is steadfast in his intent to adequately provide for the defence of Taiwan. In the event he fails to secure what is perceived to be a needed arms sale, then more provocative actions or statements may be required to co-opt the Kuomintang’s pro-independence rivals and move Ma closer to the middle.
China, meanwhile, is confronted with the sale of an older air superiority platform in the F-16 now, or else risk the sale of an even more capable fighter in the future if the F-16 production line is shut down. Though choosing between two bad options, the PLA should prefer to see 66 older F-16s sold to Taiwan rather than a potentially larger number of much more advanced fighters. Future sales may entail larger numbers because arms sales are done in accordance with threat assessments to Taiwan — as required by the TRA — that analyse the PLA’s capabilities. These assessments will inevitably document an increase in PLAAF capabilities, therefore necessitating more arms sales to Taiwan in accordance with the TRA.