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Do we still care about the Taiwan Relations Act?

The Obama administration is getting itself in trouble trying to satisfy both Beijing and the Congress by providing Taiwan with upgrades of its F-16 A/Bs instead of the new F-16 C/Ds Taipei has requested. Administration efforts this week to spin a skeptical Congress about what a great deal this is for our friends in Taipei ...

By and , the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University.
PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images
PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images
PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration is getting itself in trouble trying to satisfy both Beijing and the Congress by providing Taiwan with upgrades of its F-16 A/Bs instead of the new F-16 C/Ds Taipei has requested. Administration efforts this week to spin a skeptical Congress about what a great deal this is for our friends in Taipei only made matters worse.

By any objective measure Taiwan needs the additional -- not just retrofitted -- F-16s. The Taiwan Relations Act requires the United States to provide Taiwan with arms and services of a defensive nature. Commitments such as the Six Assurances provide clear policy guidance: decisions about Taiwan's military requirements should be made on the basis of Taiwan's defensive needs and not U.S. diplomatic relations with Beijing. U.S.-China relations are obviously important, but U.S. resolve in standing by our friends and allies is a critical backstop to ensure that our policy towards Beijing works. The PLA Air Force is growing in leaps and bounds, including the fast-tracking of stealth aircraft. Taiwan needs to replace its aging fleet of F-5s to keep planes in the air, let alone counter the PLAAF's rapidly growing advantage. Taipei repeatedly requested F-16 C/Ds only to be told by the Pentagon not to ask again. Leading officials in Taipei are now being quite open in their disappointment and concern at the U.S. decision not to provide the F-16 C/Ds.

Efforts to spin the A/B upgrades as an even better deal for Taiwan simply are not flying on the Hill, including among leading Democrats. There are three dubious arguments being deployed by the administration and its defenders. The first is that the retrofits can be done faster than the sale of new F-16s. Not only is this wrong, it is beside the point. As Taiwan retires older fighters such as the F-5s and Mirages (in part because France is no longer willing to supply the ROCAF because of Chinese pressure), the size of Taiwan's air force will shrink. Upgrading the F-16 A/Bs will cut that fleet in half for several years as the other half is being upgraded. The upgrades are necessary ... and so are new fighters. It's not politics ... it's math.

The Obama administration is getting itself in trouble trying to satisfy both Beijing and the Congress by providing Taiwan with upgrades of its F-16 A/Bs instead of the new F-16 C/Ds Taipei has requested. Administration efforts this week to spin a skeptical Congress about what a great deal this is for our friends in Taipei only made matters worse.

By any objective measure Taiwan needs the additional — not just retrofitted — F-16s. The Taiwan Relations Act requires the United States to provide Taiwan with arms and services of a defensive nature. Commitments such as the Six Assurances provide clear policy guidance: decisions about Taiwan’s military requirements should be made on the basis of Taiwan’s defensive needs and not U.S. diplomatic relations with Beijing. U.S.-China relations are obviously important, but U.S. resolve in standing by our friends and allies is a critical backstop to ensure that our policy towards Beijing works. The PLA Air Force is growing in leaps and bounds, including the fast-tracking of stealth aircraft. Taiwan needs to replace its aging fleet of F-5s to keep planes in the air, let alone counter the PLAAF’s rapidly growing advantage. Taipei repeatedly requested F-16 C/Ds only to be told by the Pentagon not to ask again. Leading officials in Taipei are now being quite open in their disappointment and concern at the U.S. decision not to provide the F-16 C/Ds.

Efforts to spin the A/B upgrades as an even better deal for Taiwan simply are not flying on the Hill, including among leading Democrats. There are three dubious arguments being deployed by the administration and its defenders. The first is that the retrofits can be done faster than the sale of new F-16s. Not only is this wrong, it is beside the point. As Taiwan retires older fighters such as the F-5s and Mirages (in part because France is no longer willing to supply the ROCAF because of Chinese pressure), the size of Taiwan’s air force will shrink. Upgrading the F-16 A/Bs will cut that fleet in half for several years as the other half is being upgraded. The upgrades are necessary … and so are new fighters. It’s not politics … it’s math.

The second claim made against Taiwan’s request is that the PLA would overwhelm them anyway. Ballistic missiles would destroy the ROCAF on the ground, it is said, but is this not the same operational challenge facing the U.S. Air Force in Japan and Korea and isn’t the answer the same — missile defense, hardening and redundancy? Others point to simulations that show the whole ROCAF being shot down in two hours by the PLAAF, but these simulations mistakenly assume that the ROCAF would scramble all their fighters in the first fight like the Battle of Britain, instead of preserving assets to attrit key PLA forces and continue the fight until international support is mobilized. More importantly, the U.S. decision to continue abiding by the TRA is itself a deterrent against Chinese use of force. Friends and foes in Asia will ask a reasonable question: if we are nervous about selling weapons, how willing would we be to actually fighting if it came to that?

The third claim thrown around is that the United States is helping maintain a positive environment for cross-Straits reconciliation with a "prudent" level of arms sales. Why then, is the architect of cross-Straits reconciliation, President Ma Ying-jeou, adamant that Taiwan needs adequate defense capabilities, including F-16 C/Ds, in order to continue rapproachment with Beijing from a position of strength?

We both expressed public frustration that in its final year the Bush administration chose not to respond to Taiwan’s first request for F-16 C/Ds. However, President Bush had already approved 30 billion dollars worth of arms sales to Taiwan at that point. The Obama administration’s current package merely finishes the remaining sales queued up by Bush and presents a Solomon like political compromise on the new tactical air requirement identified by Taiwan. The Pacific Command and the Air Force have been dutifully silent on what recommendations they gave the administration on Taiwan’s tactical air needs a year ago, but one has to wonder how much that assessment was massaged over the last year to reach the current conclusion.

After some initial stumbles vis-à-vis China, the Obama administration has gone a long way to reassure friends and allies in Asia that the United States will not accommodate a rising China at their expense. The transparently self-restrained decision on Taiwan arms sales will set that strategy back.

Daniel Blumenthal is the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Michael J. Green is the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a professor at Georgetown University, and a former senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @JapanChair

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