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Taiwan in the Lurch
Wall Street Journal

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on August 19th, 2011

According to a report in Defense News, the Obama administration quietly informed Taiwanese officials last week that Washington won't supply Taipei with new fighter jets. Since 2006, Taipei has asked to buy 66 new F-16 C/D fighters, but it will only get an upgrade of its older F-16s with better radar.

This may have taken one contentious issue off the table for U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's trip to China this week. But that harmony comes at the cost of weakening America's longstanding commitment to Taiwan's autonomy.

Washington should be under no illusion about Beijing's motives here. China's Communist Party has made the conquest of Taiwan a key measure to justify both the legitimacy of its political dictatorship and its now-galloping military buildup. The Communists also want to exploit Taiwan's strategic position to gain control of Japan's maritime lifelines, while simultaneously deepening their reach into the South China Sea.

To be sure, since his election in 2008, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has made historic progress in defusing tensions. He has promoted political ties and rapidly expanding commerce with the mainland. But this doesn't mean Taiwan welcomes reunification. Polls regularly show more than 90% of Taiwanese want both their freedom and to live in peace with China. Beijing, on the other hand, has signaled that it wants to end Taiwan's democratic era.

These are powerful motives, and Beijing has amassed powerful tools to achieve them. By 2020, it could have 2,000 or more missiles, nearly 1,000 modern combat aircraft, 60 modern submarines and a potential invasion force of many hundreds of thousands of troops pointed at Taiwan.

Taiwan needs arms of its own to deter these invasion forces. Early in their terms, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama sold weapons to Taiwan such as new Patriot anti-missile systems, air-defense destroyers and modern attack helicopters. But the fact that both have refused to sell new F-16 C/Ds matters militarily and politically.

On a purely military score, Taipei needs those fighters. The U.S. currently plans to offer modifications for Taiwan's fleet of older-generation F-16 A/B fighters, which date to the early 1990s. But upgrading this fleet of 140 aircraft with new Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar will at most offer only temporary technological parity with China's J-10B and other AESA-equipped fighters. The new F-16 C/Ds are more modern, are needed to replace older F-16s and could more efficiently enable Taiwan's transition to fifth-generation fighters later this decade.

Taiwan will also require asymmetrical weapons such as submunition carrying surface-to-surface missiles and electromagnetic launch or "rail gun" weapons, expected to be ready in a few years. In terms of rounds that hit targets, these weapons can actually "outnumber" China's missiles and fighters.

The politics of Washington's move are also bad. Beijing regularly threatens the U.S. with supposedly dire political or military consequences if arms sales proceed. On August 8, the government mouthpiece China Daily intoned, "Now is the time for China to use its 'financial weapon' to teach the United States a lesson if it moves forward with a plan to sale [sic] arms to Taiwan." Though this is an unlikely option, China does rattle America by regularly suspending military-to-military engagement after such arms sales. A refusal to sell the new F-16s will prove to Beijing that it can limit Washington's strategic freedom.

That's sure to embolden China's strategic ambitions further. As a start, it will encourage Beijing to become more active in the Taiwan Straits. More worryingly, China's military leadership could start to believe that it would have a chance at succeeding in a war with Taiwan not least by discouraging U.S. intervention. Such a belief, whether mistaken or not, would be the first step to such a war becoming a reality.

These problems aren't limited to Taiwan. For the last three decades, the degree to which Washington has been willing to support the defense of Taiwan has helped to define both the strength and character of America's role in Asia and kept China at bay. If Beijing were to succeed against Taipei, American leadership in Asia could evaporate. That will push a region already wary of China's not-so-peaceful rise well beyond its recent double-digit arms buildup and into an even riskier age of strategic nuclear competition. Such an outcome would weaken regional and global economic stability and raise the political, military and economic costs for the U.S.

Given these stakes, the Obama administration's failure to assist in Taiwan's defense and, in turn, that of Asia's, is a massive gamble. Ensuring the survival of a free Taiwan is perhaps the most effective means the U.S. has to reassure the region it is serious about curtailing Chinese aggression and defending peace and prosperity in Asia.

Mr. Fisher is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia.

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