By Matthew Pennington
The United States has announced a US$5.85 billion arms sales package that will upgrade Taiwan’s fleet of 145 F-16 fighter jets and said it remained committed to the self-governing island.
Top US diplomat for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, told a news conference that the upgrades will help ensure Taiwan’s ability to defend itself and contribute to the stability of the self-governing island’s relations with mainland China, which regards Taiwan as part of its territory.
He said Taiwan’s additional request for 66 new F-16s was still under consideration. Taiwan first sought the new planes in 2006.
“We believe the approach that we have taken is prudent and careful and we will continue along those lines,” he said.
Both Republican and Democrat lawmakers have called for the sales of new planes as well as the upgrades, and have introduced legislation seeking to mandate that. They have criticised the Obama administration of trying to mollify mainland China by denying Taiwan the new planes.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared the refusal to sell new planes was an example of President Barack Obama’s “weak leadership in foreign policy”.
“President Obama has ignored Taiwan’s request and caved into the unreasonable demands of China at the cost of well-paying American jobs,” the former Massachusetts governor said in a statement.
Taiwan’s Defense Ministry gave the first official confirmation of the upgrades to its F-16 A/Bs earlier Wednesday, after the US administration had notified Congress of the sale.
The ministry said the sale would include AESA radar that Taiwan wanted. The system will provide the planes the ability to detect stealth aircraft, like the J-20 that China is developing.
But the ministry on Wednesday also urged Washington also to approve the sales of more advanced F-16 C/D warplanes.
The US is obligated under legislation passed by Congress in 1979 to provide Taiwan weapons for its self-defence. But it also appears to be weighing the reaction of emerging superpower China, with which it has sought to deepen ties. Beijing has responded to previous arms sales to Taiwan by temporarily cutting military ties with Washington.
Campbell defended the Obama administration’s commitment to improving Taiwan’s defence capability – which is widely recognised as having lurched in China’s favour as the mainland has invested heavily in its military in the past decade.
Beijing has continued to build up its military posture, including ballistic missiles arrayed against the island, despite a sharp improvement in relations since Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou took power in 2008 and then agreed a landmark trade pact with the mainland.
Campbell said the Obama administration had approved more than $12 billion in defence sales to Taiwan in the past two years, greater than during any other period.
The upgrades account for US$5.3 billion of the latest package. It also includes a five-year extension of F-16 pilot training in the US, totalling US$500 million, and aircraft spare parts for sustaining Taiwan’s F-16 A/Bs, its aging fleet of F-5s, and C-130 transport planes, totalling US$52 million.
“This will help ensure Taiwan maintains the ability to defend its air space in both peace time and in any crisis,” Campbell said.