With the public release of a US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report on Taiwan’s air power, there is now a public US government assessment of Taiwan’s ability to fend off Chinese attack. And while the report does not directly state how well Taiwan would do against the PLA, there is little reason for optimism under current conditions. Three of the four aircraft in the Taiwan air force inventory are problematic: its F-5s are reaching the end of their operational life; the Ching-Kuo Indigenous Defense Fighter has limited ability to sustain high sortie rates; while the operations and maintenance costs of the Mirage-2000 are so high as to affect operational readiness.
In this light, Taiwan’s standing request for 66 additional American-built F-16s to supplement current defensive capabilities is more urgent than ever. So far, both the Bush and Obama administrations have withheld them from Taiwan.
Delaying the sale of these fighters not only undermines the ability of Taiwan to defend itself, especially in light of the weaknesses that the US Department of Defense has identified, but also raises questions of US commitment to Taiwan consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act.
Alternatively, if the intent is to delay the sale until a later date in the hopes of currying favor with Beijing, the Chinese reaction to the recent visit of the Dalai Lama, after President Obama had delayed it last year, should provide food for thought. Beijing’s view, on both the visit and Taiwan arms sale, is that it is fundamentally illegitimate for the United States to engage in such actions, whenever they might occur. Putting off the sale, like the visit, will no more lead to Chinese approval than a delay in visiting the dentist will make a cavity go away.
In this light, the administration should bite the bullet, and proceed with F-16 sales to Taiwan.