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Has the Obama administration made a decision on selling Taiwan new planes or not?

The Obama administration is playing a word game regarding Taiwan’s request for new F-16 fighter planes; it isn’t selling Taiwan the planes — but it won’t rule it out either. After the administration announced late last month its decision to offer Taiwan a $5.8 billion package of upgrades to its aging fleet of F-16 A/B ...

The Obama administration is playing a word game regarding Taiwan's request for new F-16 fighter planes; it isn't selling Taiwan the planes -- but it won't rule it out either.

After the administration announced late last month its decision to offer Taiwan a $5.8 billion package of upgrades to its aging fleet of F-16 A/B model fighters, most observers assumed that meant the United States would not sell Taiwan the 66 new F-16 C/D model fighters it has requested. But two senior officials testified today that the sale of the new fighters is still on the table and they denied that China's objections played any part in their Taiwan arms sales decision making.

The Obama administration is playing a word game regarding Taiwan’s request for new F-16 fighter planes; it isn’t selling Taiwan the planes — but it won’t rule it out either.

After the administration announced late last month its decision to offer Taiwan a $5.8 billion package of upgrades to its aging fleet of F-16 A/B model fighters, most observers assumed that meant the United States would not sell Taiwan the 66 new F-16 C/D model fighters it has requested. But two senior officials testified today that the sale of the new fighters is still on the table and they denied that China’s objections played any part in their Taiwan arms sales decision making.

"We have not ruled out any future aircraft decisions. We understand Taiwan’s interest in F-16 Cs and Ds, and this is under consideration," said Peter Lavoy, the acting assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, who testified at Tuesday’s hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee along with Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

Lavoy testified that the administration decided to sell the A/B fighter upgrades now because "it is an immediate priority," but committee ranking member Howard Berman (D-CA) pointed out that selling new planes to Taiwan might actually be quicker than upgrading the old planes. Lavoy didn’t respond directly to that question.

Both Campbell and Lavoy argued that the upgrade package being offered to Taiwan would provide the same capability as new planes and would result in having more planes available, since Taiwan has 145 F-16 A/B fighters.

But several committee members pressed Campbell and Lavoy to explain why the administration didn’t sell Taiwanese leaders the new fighter jets they clearly want, if in fact Chinese sensitivities were not an issue.

"They may live with the upgrade, but their clear preference is for F-16Cs and D’s," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (R-VA).

"We know they interest in the C’s and D’s and we are considering that request," said Lavoy.

"I think what he means, Congressman, is that we’ve ruled nothing out," Campbell quickly chimed in.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) a decision on the sale of F-16 C/D fighters to Taiwan by Oct. 1, as part of a deal that saw Cornyn lift his hold on the confirmation of Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns.

In an interview on Tuesday, Cornyn told The Cable that he doesn’t think Clinton reneged on her promise because he doesn’t believe that F-16 C/D sales to Taiwan are actually still under consideration.

"I think we got a decision and it was negative," Cornyn said. "They claimed the upgrades were sufficient but they aren’t. I think that’s a little attempt to distract from their mistaken policy. I think they are clearly afraid to antagonize China."

Campbell, however, emphasized that the Obama administration has offered more sales of weapons to Taiwan than any other administration, including a $6.4 billion arms package that was announced in January 2010. He also testified that the administration never consulted with or briefed the Chinese before announcing the most recent Taiwan arms sales decision and he said Chinese concerns had no bearing on administration thinking.

"I know why they would say that," Cornyn responded, with thick skepticism in his voice.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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