You’re forgiven if you’ve forgetten what and where it is. After all, it’s been out of the headlines for a long time. It’s that island about 100 miles off the shore of China. It’s the one the Obama State Department would just as soon see float out to sea, so that it would stop putting in those pesky requests for defensive arms that U.S. law calls for.
It’s been 32 years since Congress passed and then-President Carter signed the Taiwan Relations Act. It calls for us to sell sufficient arms to help Taiwan (formally known as the Republic of China) deter a potential attack from Communist China. Despite China’s occasional reiteration that it retains the “right” to invade Taiwan if the island were to declare its independence, it has never been under the control of the Communist government.
We have made the sales from time to time. Each time we have done so, Beijing goes into what China-watchers call Gong-banging Mode. They thunder that we are interfering in “internal” Chinese business; that we are destabilizing our relationship with them; that the world will end tomorrow we if don’t withdraw the sale. And so on. After awhile the gong-banging stops; the cancelled China-U.S. meetings are rescheduled and life goes on.
Meanwhile, over the years, China has continually added to the thousands of rockets and launchers it has installed on the coast of Fujian Province, just opposite Taiwan, to underscore the point that it could attack at any moment, should it wish to do so.
Last year, Beijing put its military relations with us on “hold” following our sale of missiles and helicopters to the ROC on Taiwan. They were resumed this spring with the visit to Washington of Beijing’s army’s chief of staff. So, it was back to the pre-sale status quo.
Taiwan purchased its all-important F-16 fighter aircraft in the 1980s. Nothing lasts forever and they have asked to buy 66 new F16C/D models. When the informal request came in, the Obama Administration swooned. Not long before he left office, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that, while the U.S. tried to abide by the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act, it was also important to address “Chinese sensibilities.”
The way the administration has done this is to quietly tell the ROC government in Taipei not to formally request the new jets just now, but to ask for a an interim purchase of an arms and equipment package that would “upgrade” its nearly 30-year-old aircraft. The State Department has held up action even on that watered-down alternative. It is also sitting on two reports to Congress on China’s military prowess and the state of air power over the Taiwan Strait. This suggests the reports would buttress Taiwan’s need for stronger defensive arms.
Even if it stopped dithering, moved forward with the “interim” plan and released the two reports, the administration would still need earplugs to withstand the noise of Beijing’s gong banging. The decibel level would be less than if we sold Taiwan the 66 new fighters, but the effect would be the same. Beijing might cancel some meeting or other. How scary.
In late May, 45 senators of both parties wrote to Mr. Obama urging the sale of the 66 aircraft.
That would be good for keeping things as they are in the Taiwan Strait. It is the formula that has worked for more than three decades. It’s no secret that China, with its growing deep-water fleet, wants to replace the United States as the dominant force in the Western Pacific. Helping Taiwan defend itself effectively, should the need arise, forestalls Beijing’s aggressive plans.
There is a side benefit to the sale of the F-16s to Taiwan. They are made by Lockheed Martin and its contractors. A recent study estimates that the sale would generate or save more than 87,000 jobs. Without it, Lockheed may have to close down its F-16 production line.