When King Solomon was faced with settling a dispute between two women over who was the actual mother of a baby, his initial decision was that the baby should be split in two, with each given a half. Intending to spark a response from the true mother, Solomon of course never meant to split the baby in half. His wisdom was in creating the ploy, not in following through on it. Apparently, the Obama administration has never taken to heart the full account of this story when it comes to its policy towards Taiwan.
This past Friday, administration officials briefed Congress on its decision not to sell Taiwan 66 new F-16s — fighters the government of Taiwan has been attempting to buy for the last several years. Instead, yesterday, the administration announced that it was offering Taiwan a package that would help modernize Taiwan’s existing fleet of F-16s and which date from President George H. W. Bush’s decision to sell them to the island in 1992. There is no question that those planes need the upgrades in radars and weapon systems. As the backbone of Taiwan’s air defenses, the F-16s in Taiwan’s inventory are increasingly overmatched by China’s deployment of several hundred advanced fighters and fighter-bombers across the Taiwan Strait, and its procurement of equally advanced air defense systems. As a RAND Corporation study noted two years ago, because of the rapid expansion of Chinese air and missile capabilities, “The danger to both” Taiwanese and American air force “operations in the Taiwan Strait is sufficiently grave that a credible case can be made that the air war for Taiwan could essentially be over before much of the Blue air forces have even fired a shot.”
But Taiwan’s problem is not simply that its existing F-16s are old. So too are its other fighters. Taiwan’s fleet of first generation F-16s, ancient F-5s, dated French Mirage 2000s and Taiwan’s own indigenously developed fighters from the 1980s are all showing the wear, tear, and “down” rates that come from older planes being used constantly. Taiwan doesn’t just need upgrades to its existing F-16s; it needs new fighters as well. Quantity and quality are both needed if Taiwan is to have a fighting chance in defending itself or, at least, holding off the Chinese until American help arrives.
Perhaps the administration thinks with its decision it is prudently providing some help to Taiwan while doing so in a fashion that will not lead to a rupture in U.S.-China relations. But in doing so, the White House is ignoring its obligation under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” To be fair to the White House, it is not the first administration to ignore the act’s proscriptions. Both Republicans and Democrats sitting in the Oval Office have fallen short in this regard — which is precisely why the military balance in the Taiwan Strait has reached the problematic state it has.
Of course, the argument in the past has been that one could short-change Taiwan’s defense needs for one of two reasons: Either China’s own military was judged inadequate to challenge the U.S. military should a conflict arise or, more broadly, the inevitable tensions with Beijing that followed when the U.S. did sell arms to Taiwan were judged to be a distraction from the larger goal of easing China into its role a being a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. But, today, both assumptions appear to be in question.
In the first instance, China’s two-decade-old effort at modernizing its military has produced a situation in which America’s ability to project naval and air power in the region is now at risk. In 1996, President Clinton ordered two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups into the waters off of Taiwan in response to China’s attempt to intimidate the voters of Taiwan in the run-up to their presidential election by firing ballistic missiles in their direction. He did so confident that U.S. forces would be able deter China from threats of escalation. This would not be the case today, with U.S. forces facing a formidable array of cruise and ballistic missiles, dense air defenses, modern fighters and sensor systems capable of finding and targeting ships at sea.
Nor is it clear that the policy of engagement has produced a China whose leaders believe that its future depends on accepting the U.S.-led international system of institutions and norms. If anything, with both the United States and Europe facing dire economic prospects and declining defense budgets, it’s no surprise that Beijing has been more blunt about its own ambitions and assertive in laying claims to an expanding number of “core” interests.
But if the trend lines are not especially auspicious in the case of China’s rise as an Asian power, the administration’s response is no less problematic. “Splitting the baby in half” as the Obama team has done with the arms sale to Taiwan will neither placate China nor help to reverse in a substantial way the deteriorating security situation across the Strait. It’s a solution that is only likely to end in tears.
— Gary Schmitt is director of the program on advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.