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Friday, August 26, 2011

TRA la la

Like my daughter, the Obama administration is going through contortions over the question of whether or not to sell upgraded versions of F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan. As an article by scholar Micheal Richardson that appeared the other day in the Japan Times ジャパンタイムズ points out, the "Taiwan arms deal serves as (a) litmus test of U.S. resolve" (

"Buoyed by growing economic and military strength, China is drawing more lines in the sand in the vast, but disputed, offshore zones in Asia over which it claims sovereignty or jurisdiction. These 'red lines,' which China warns should not be crossed, affect the vital interests of Taiwan, Southeast Asia and Japan.

They also test the resolve of the United States to continue to support a treaty and partnership system with its allies and friends that has been a foundation for stability and growth in East Asia since the end of World War II.

China wants to tilt the balance of power in the region so that it has more influence and the U.S. less. But the red line policy is a challenge for China as well: how will it react if the lines it draws are crossed by the U.S. and other countries?

China claims sovereignty over Taiwan. It says it owns islands in the South China Sea also claimed (and in some cases garrisoned) by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Beijing says islands in the East China Sea administered by Japan rightfully belong to China. It asserts jurisdiction over the surrounding waters of all these islands.

Although often treated as separate issues, the Chinese claims are linked and part of a strategic fabric. Taiwan's Deputy Defense Minister Andrew Yang explained in a recent interview with Defense News that if China took control of Taiwan and had bases there it would open the door for Chinese power projection into both the East and South China seas.

'Taiwan would become an important hub and stepping stone for China to exert and expand its presence in the South China Sea, which is certainly not in the U.S. interest,' he said. 'It would immediately challenge U.S. strategic calculations and its security umbrella in the Asia-Pacific region.' Yang added that if Taiwan became part of China, 'then immediately the United States will lose a vital interest in this part of the world.'"

The question that is seemingly vexing officials in the Obama administration is whether shoring up the defenses of an obvious bulwark against Chinese expansionism worth the "damage" to Sino-U.S. relations should such a sale be approved:

"More difficult for the U.S. to finesse is Taiwan's request for 66 advanced F-16 jet fighters to replace 145 older models of the same aircraft. The sale is strongly opposed by China. Some U.S. analysts have called for a reassessment of arms transfers to Taiwan. They argue that doing so would smooth relations with China and defuse an Asian flash point.

When the Obama administration authorized the sale in January 2010 of $6.4 billion in arms to Taiwan, including missile systems and transport helicopters, China suspended all military contacts with the U.S. for about a year.

Washington is due to make decision by Oct. 1 on Taiwan's request for the new F-16s. A possible compromise that may be less objectionable to China could involve the U.S. upgrading Taiwan's existing F-16s to make them more capable.

Whatever the outcome, it will be a litmus test of U.S. resolution in the face of Beijing's red line diplomacy."

Micheal Turton has pointed out on numerous occaisons on The View from Taiwan how denying such sales to Taiwan would not deter China from pressing its numerous (not to mention questionable) territorial claims. The issue is also complicated by the fact that the support given by the administration of Ma Ying-jeou (Mǎ​ Yīng​jiǔ) 馬英九 for the arms package is rather tepid at best (it was the Kuomintang [Guó​mín​dǎng] 國民黨, remember, that blocked earlier arms sales proposals in the legislature during the previous administration, when the KMT was an opposition party). Support for Taiwan, however, is one of those few issues where the conservatives have got it right, and the Obama administration should not hesitate to provide the arms that Taiwan's military needs, Chinese objections be damned. Close American allies in the region, such as Japan and the Philippines, who are embroiled in their own nasty territorial spats with China, will no doubt be paying close attention to what the U.S. ultimately decides.

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