When top Obama administration officials went to Beijing last week, they had a broad agenda for discussion, including Iran, climate change, and North Korea. What did the Chinese want to talk about? Taiwan, Taiwan, and Taiwan.
Several China experts close to both sets of officials said that Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and National Security Council Senior Director Jeffrey Bader went to China with the understanding that they would have substantive discussions on some key issues of U.S. interest, but the Chinese side used the opportunity to try to bargain for an end to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, something Beijing has wanted for decades and now feels bold enough to demand.
“It was all about Taiwan,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “The message that the Chinese are giving us is ‘We’ve had enough; we’re fed up. We’ve been living with this issue of U.S. arms sales for too long and it’s time to solve it.'”
The Obama team has been noticing increased confidence on the Chinese side when dealing with the United States, and some officials see that as partly a result of the rise of hard-liners within the Chinese system who advocate a tougher stance toward Washington.
But asking the Obama administration to end Taiwan arms sales shows a profound misunderstanding of U.S. foreign-policy decision making, several experts said.
“Do they really think they have a chance in hell of ending our arms sales to Taiwan? I find that shocking, but that’s what they’re telling us,” Glaser said of the Chinese. “I can’t imagine why they think that U.S. interests have somehow changed on this issue. Ultimately that’s why we sell them, because it’s in our interest, not to piss off China.”
Charles Freeman, who holds the Freeman Chair (no relation) in China Studies at CSIS, said the Chinese are trying to raise the price of their cooperation on Iran and other issues by bringing up their long displeasure over the Taiwan arms-sales issue.
“There is a strong push from Beijing to get that core issue as their big ask and there’s a desire to reopen discussions about what a plan to eliminate arms sales to Taiwan would look like,” he explained. “There is some sense that we can trade Iran for Taiwan, but that’s a non-starter for the Obama administration. The Chinese don’t seem to understand that.”
Meanwhile, although the Obama administration moved forward, eventually, with the Bush administration’s left over deal to sell Taiwan some arms, the White House declined to see Taiwan any F-16 aircraft as part of the recent $6.2 billion arms sales package.
Some China watchers fear that the Obama administration is cementing a custom by which the U.S. continues to sell some arms to Taiwan while simultaneously ignoring the ongoing decline of the island’s actual defense capabilities in the face of massive and increasing Chinese deployments across the Taiwan Strait.
That’s the implication of this recent unclassified report by the Defense Intelligence Agency to the Office of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, which outlines how Taiwan’s air defenses, which are dependent on U.S. equipment, are old and eroding quickly.
Of course, it was the Bush administration that first decided to remove the F-16s from the package of arms being sold to Taiwan and actually refused to accept a letter requesting the planes, experts note. But Obama’s decision to continue the practice is seen by many as directed more at maintaining a delicate relationship with mainland China than it is on any analysis of Taiwan’s security posture.
“Decisions are being made solely on the basis of what would least provoke China, not on the basis of what Taiwan would actually need to defend itself,” said former Pentagon China official Dan Blumenthal, now with the American Enterprise Institute. “In deciding in effect that Taiwan does not need the aircraft, they are deciding Taiwan doesn’t need an air force, which puts both U.S. and Taiwan air defenses at greater risk.”
Taiwan is nowhere close to ending its lobbying effort to buy the newer F-16 planes. Defense News¸ which first highlighted the DIA document, reported today that Taiwan’s defense ministry is releasing a new study claiming Chinese fighter superiority. Several Taiwanese lawmakers wrote to House and Senate foreign relations leaders to ask for a follow-on sale of F-16 fighters.
“If America softens its support for our country at this critical time we believe it will have an adverse effect on cross-Strait relations as Taiwan’s negotiating position is weakened and the PRC may then seek to capitalize on our situation,” the letter stated.
The sale of newer F-16s to Taiwan, the “C” and “D” versions, is also part of a larger drive to keep the production lines open for the plane. The major advocates are from the Texas and Georgia delegations, whose states stand to benefit most. Since the F-16 is also in the hunt for new sales to India, those with an interest there would also be inclined to make sure the line doesn’t close.
“At some point this year, the F-16 supply chain will begin to shut down as there are no new orders and the U.S. and its allies switch to the F-35,” said one Washington Asia hand. “Once this happens it is cost-prohibitive to restart the line. This industrial time constraint will force the political decision either to sell the aircraft to Taiwan or not. If no, for all intents and purposes the island will have no real means of defending its airspace.”