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Making Sense of US Arms Sales to Taiwan August 22, 2011

Posted by Afflatus in World Affairs.
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DefenseNews and a few other sources (including Taiwan’s defense ministry) are reporting that the United States has decided to deny Taiwan’s request for 66 new F-16C/D fighter aircraft. The Obama Administration has denied that this is true, but promised that it would make its final decision on the matter by October 1. According to the reports, the United States will make various upgrades to Taiwan’s older F-16A/B airplanes rather than granting Taiwan its request for the more advanced C/D class. These upgrades include  a substantially more advanced radar system, better air-to-air missile, and fitting the planes to carry laser-guided bombs.


Taiwan wants the F-16C/D class in order replace its 60 Mirage 2000-5 and 60 F-5 Tigers that are due for retirement  in 5-10 years. The 150 F-16A/B which the United States has offered to upgrade instead are aircraft it sold Taiwan in 1992 as part of a $6 billion dollar request. Taiwan also requested from France the 60 retiring Mirage 2000-5 in 1992, and the 60 F-5 Tigers are even older. So rather than receiving 150 new and improved F-16 jets, Taiwan will get its 1990’s F-16s upgraded. While the upgrade is qualitatively substantial, it does nothing to address the numerical problem of the 120 retiring aircraft in Taiwan’s arsenal. Moreover, further qualitative upgrades could have been made to the F-16A/B class, meaning the sale wont equip Taiwan’s F-16A/B with the very best radar system, or the best missiles.

The US sold 150 of the F-16A/B Block 20 aircraft to Taiwan in 1992.

Even more background is necessary to understand the larger implications of this decision. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 is the law that governs US arms sales to Taiwan. It states that it is US policy “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character;” in order to “enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” The United States also promised China in a 1982 communique to gradually scale back arm sales to Taiwan. These two obligations are inherently contradictory, particularly as China’s military power projection grows. That same law requires the executive branch “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” by China that would jeopardize the security, or social or economic system of Taiwan’s people. China’s growing military strength along with American overstretch concerns call into question how sustainable this commitment can be. This trend is most recently exemplified by China’s Varyag aircraft carrier, which this month began its first sea trials.

The Balance of Power

The military balance of power between China and Taiwan is shifting significantly in China’s favor. China remains unwilling to renounce the possible use of military force against Taiwan, and its military posture is threatening. With the largest military in the world, China has substantial quantitative advantages over Taiwan even if only the Chinese forces in the Taiwan Strait area are counted. Whereas Taiwan’s military spending as a percent of GDP has decreased almost every year since 1994, China’s military expenditures have grown rapidly. In 2010, China’s military budget (including weapons research and foreign arms purchases) was $150 billion, while Taiwan’s was only $9.3 billion.

Today, China has a deployed arsenal immediately across the Strait from Taiwan of 1,050-1,150 short-range ballistic missiles and a large quantity of land attack cruise missiles. To counter this Taiwan has the state of the art Patriot missile defense system, which it received from the United States. But a recent report by Pentagon intelligence officials states that Taiwan’s ability to deny China air superiority is increasingly diminishing. The two country’s air forces are now roughly in qualitative parity, whereas China’s have historically been far behind in this regard.


It is clear that Taiwan would have great difficulty repelling a full-scale Chinese attack. While I’m not prepared to criticize the decision to reject Taiwan’s bid for advanced F-16’s, I do worry about China gaining an overwhelming and unrecoverable advantage in hard power terms. The United States is obligated to defend Taiwan in the case of Chinese unilateral aggression. While this commitment will become more burdensome as the balance of power shifts,  it is a responsibility which the United States should welcome, as it advances America’s national interest. The active engagement of the United States has contributed greatly to the peace and stability between China and Taiwan; in addition to arms sales, America’s commitment to defend Taiwan is a critical deterrent against aggressive Chinese action. Taiwan is a democracy with a good human rights record, and it is a responsible and important player in the global economy. Further, America’s alliance with Taiwan provides the United States with many geopolitical and strategic benefits. For all these reasons, America must support Taiwan.

Taiwan arms sales are a delicate balancing act for the United States. While America must maintain a good relationship with China, it is important to preserve the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait. The difficult, but necessary task is for American diplomats to reconcile these seemingly incompatible goals.