Taiwan will not get the 66 new F-16 fighters long promised by Washington. Lengthy and difficult debates in Beijing, Washington and Taipei have produced a compromise full of serious implications for the current White House administration.
Repaired better than new
Initially, Taiwan wanted to purchase 66 new F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters. Now it will have to limit itself to upgrading 145 outdated F-16A/B Block 20 planes it already has. News that the United States had taken a final decision to switch to the upgrade was reported last Wednesday by the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency. A high-placed White House official told The Wall Street Journal that Washington has no current plans to sell new F-16 fighters to Taiwan.
What's the difference between selling new fighters and upgrading old ones? Which of the two approaches would strengthen Taiwan's air force more?
The F-16 is a family of aircraft traditionally divided into a host of smaller modifications known as "blocks." These differ from one another by design improvements, and armament and equipment packages.
Modern Block 50/52s differ from old Block 20s in having an entirely new armament control architecture, linked to the GPS satellite system. It was this approach that once enabled the Americans to cheaply convert a vast arsenal of "not very precise" ammunition into high-precision weapons by simply using smart bombs with satellite navigation receivers.
What happens to a Block 20 when it becomes a Block 50/52? A frontline F-16 fighter, which was originally developed as a low-cost close-combat aircraft, has turned into a multi-role strike fighter which can operate against both ground and sea targets.
At first glance, the Taiwanese air force will be stripped of an important tactical capability without the new planes. However, it is worth taking a closer look at the upgrade package proposed for the 145 older fighters.
What is planned for the F-16A/B (Block 20) - a good aircraft but one long past its youthfulness - is a complete conversion to a Block 50/52 aircraft. In addition, the Taiwanese jets will now be equipped with the latest radar with an active phased antenna array. Oddly, the standard Block 50/52 lacks this feature.
What's more, one of the two radar options is SABR manufactured by Northrop Grumman, a version of the latest AN/APG-81 unit, to be mounted on F-35 5th generation fighters, which are currently undergoing tests with the U.S. Air Force. It is intended as an upgrade for F-16s in service with the U.S. Air Force and has not been supplied to any of Washington's other allies.
Air-to-air weapons systems will also be formidable. One is the AIM-9X Sidewinder infrared-guided missile. These missiles can be fired by a group of aircraft on a target designated by one of them, or from an outside command.
This is an interesting turn of events. Instead of receiving 66 new fighters, Taiwan will get an upgraded force of 145 warplanes. One is worth the other.
This U.S. move is difficult to interpret as a goodwill gesture toward China, which has voiced vehement protests against the delivery of the latest American equipment to Taiwan.
But this situation is worth looking at from a domestic angle, too.
To spite the Democrats
The saga of aircraft sales to Taiwan has been dragging on for a long time and is now in its fourth year. By following it one can trace the White House evolution from its attempts to find a new, sensible and economic foreign policy to its current election nightmare, with the Republicans not just lashing out at the Democrats' foreign policy but even trying to paralyze it in order to criticize it more fiercely.
Criticism over the Taiwan issue has been pouring in on Obama since he took office. David Rothkopf, a well-known expert, contributed an article, "Can the U.S. afford to continue supporting Taiwan," to Foreign Policy magazine early in 2010. In it the author criticizes President Obama for his decision to sell Taiwan $6.4 billion worth of arms in a deal the Democrats inherited from Bush.
What do the claims add up to? Taiwan, the shelter for the Chinese who lost the civil war in China to Mao Zedong in 1949, "is small." It offers the United States "very little in the way of true strategic advantage." So, Rothkopf says, the Chinese should resolve their issues themselves.
America, the author solemnly declares, is entering an Era of Limits. He sees it as something like a spring cleaning of the attic (U.S. foreign policy) to discard the obligations Washington is no longer able to honor.
One can find supporters of this view both among Democrats and Republicans. Each year the United States spends an amount of money on national security that is comparable to Indonesia's GDP. And in effect borrows it from China, says Stephen Glain, the author of the book "State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America's Empire."
The relationship between China and Taiwan are also nuanced. The island's authorities do not mind if they get new (or upgraded) aircraft. But Taipei is improving its relations with Beijing step by step. The process is likely to continue until the two economies integrate as much as possible.
The new deal has been on the shelf for three years. Late this summer the Obama administration decided that Taiwan would not get the new planes. That must have been the message carried by U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden as he went to Beijing.
But now is a time of change. China is to have new leadership next year, and Taiwan is too important for the Chinese elite and public opinion. With elections scheduled in Taiwan, the arms purchase might help its current authorities attract votes from the local "hawks" who do not trust Beijing.
Elections are to take place in the United States as well. This time, foreign policy features heavily on the election agenda. Republican presidential hopefuls are already picking on the Democrats for the "weakness" of their foreign policy.
Their Republican counterparts in parliament, who have a majority in the House and no small presence in the Senate, have been threatening the administration since May that they will sell new planes to Taiwan against the president's will. Some Democrats joined them later.
Obama's decision not to deliver new aircraft and to limit himself to the upgrade option is in tune with the current political situation. But it looks like America's domestic political paralysis will evolve in the next few months whatever the president decides on foreign policy for Taiwan or for the rest of the world for that matter.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.