Taiwan may delay an F-16 deal with the U.S. over the cost of upgrading its current fleet, along with the possible release of new F-16C/Ds. (U.S. Air Force)
Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn on April 27 lifted a two-month hold on the nomination of Mark Lippert to become the Pentagon’s top official for Asia after the White House pledged to give “serious consideration” to selling new F-16C/D fighter jets to Taiwan.
Under U.S. law, the administration is required to provide for the self-defense of Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that China claims as its territory. The Obama administration authorized a $5.85 billion upgrade of Taiwan’s aging fighter jets in September.
That deal drew immediate criticism from Obama’s Republican rivals, who argued that the sale of new jets, while likely upsetting Beijing, would better defend Taiwan from a rising China as well as create U.S. manufacturing jobs.
The Obama administration argued at the time that an upgrade rather than sale of new planes would more immediately address Taiwan’s military needs.
But the letter to Cornyn said: “We are mindful of and share your concerns about Taiwan’s growing shortfall in fighter aircraft as (its existing) F-5s are retired from service and notwithstanding the upgrade of the F-16A/Bs.”
Cornyn had pressured the administration by placing a hold — a legislative move under which a senator can block a nomination — on Lippert, whom Obama named to be the assistant secretary of defense in charge of Asia.
Cornyn announced that he was lifting his hold on Lippert but would still press the administration until it sells new warplanes to Taiwan.
“I commend the administration for recognizing that our friend and ally Taiwan’s air force is woefully undersized and outgunned by communist China,” he said in a statement.
Whether or not the actual sale of fighter jets goes through is yet to be seen.
“It certainly reads like a very serious commitment to address the disparity in the number of fighters between Taiwan and the mainland,” Bonnie Glaser, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the letter from the White House to Cornyn.
“The White House lawyers probably say that they have not made a promise to sell new fighters to Taiwan,” she said. “My view is, as a non-lawyer, that’s as close to a promise you can get without making one.”
China regularly protests any U.S. arms packages for Taiwan. But its reaction to the September deal was comparatively muted, with U.S. officials seeing little concrete retaliation such as the cancellation of visits.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are heading to Beijing next week for annual talks between the United States and China.