- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Congress is stepping up pressure on the Obama administration to sell more F-16 jet fighters to Taiwan as the island’s air defenses deteriorate and China’s air power grows.

Sen. John Cornyn, a leading advocate for efforts to bolster Taiwan’s defenses as well as to keep a U.S. production line open for new F-16s, said Tuesday that the shifting military balance across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait is increasing the danger of a conflict that could involve the United States.

“While the administration dithers on Taiwan’s request for F-16s, evidence continues to mount that what Taiwan desperately needs to restore the cross-strait balance and regain the ability to defend its own airspace is new fighter aircraft to bolster an air force that is borderline obsolete,” the Texas Republican and Armed Services Committee member said in the Senate.

“The repercussions of a rising and potentially aggressive China, able to dominate the airspace over Taiwan, demands the attention of our military planners, government officials and members of Congress because it opens the door for China to use force against Taiwan.”

In the House, Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican, also supports the sale of 66 new F-16C/D model jets to Taiwan because the island’s air forces are declining.

“We have an obligation under the Taiwan Relations Act, and we should honor it. But let’s be realistic: The sale of these aircraft is good for the U.S. industrial base as well,” Mr. McKeon said.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sidestepped a reporter’s question last week on whether he supports selling new F-16s to Taiwan. Mr. Gates, on his way to an Asian defense conference, said the George W. Bush and Obama administrations tried to abide by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. But he also said U.S. law was balanced by efforts to address “Chinese sensitivities.” Beijing opposes arms sales to the independent island nation that China regards as its territory.

Asked specifically about sales of new F-16s, Mr. Gates, who leaves the Pentagon on June 30, said, “I don’t have a view on that at this point.”

His spokesman said later that “when the time is needed for him to have a view of any proposed weapons sale, Secretary Gates will have one, but no such decision has been teed up for review yet.”

Defense officials said the Obama administration is delaying any new U.S. arms sales to Taiwan to avoid upsetting military relations with Beijing, which has cut off military ties with the U.S. twice in the past three years. Last year, Beijing halted military relations to protest a $6.4 billion arms package of missiles and helicopters to Taiwan. Ties were restarted last month with the visit to the U.S. by Gen. Chen Bingde, the Chinese army’s chief of staff.

The Senate has two opportunities to press the administration on arms sales.

Mr. Cornyn is expected to ask Defense Secretary-designate Leon E. Panetta, whose nomination hearing is Thursday, about worrisome China security issues, but he is not threatening to hold up his nomination. A future Pentagon Asia policy nominee, however, could be delayed by the issues, a Senate aide said.

The State Department, which has the lead on arms sales, also is vulnerable to Senate pressure. William Burns, undersecretary of state for policy, is awaiting a Senate vote on his nomination to deputy secretary of state. Senators are waiting for answers to questions about China security issues before a final vote.

According to the officials, the administration has told Taiwan’s government not to formally request new jets and, instead, is offering the interim step of a $4 billion arms-and-equipment package to upgrade Taiwan’s 145 F-16s that were purchased in the 1980s.

That package has been held up for months by the State Department, despite being viewed as less likely to upset China. The Pentagon also is delaying the release of two reports to Congress on air power across the strait and China’s overall military power.

State Department and White House spokesmen declined to discuss the sales and said all agencies continue “to be involved in the ongoing process to evaluate Taiwan’s defense needs.”

“No decisions on foreign military sales, including the possible retrofit of F-16s, have been made,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

Some in the administration oppose the Taiwan arms sales based on a policy that calls for closer military relations with China as a way to build trust with Asia’s growing communist power.

A senior Senate aide close to the issue said there is a sense in Congress that the administration wants lawmakers to force the Pentagon to sell new F-16s as a way to limit the expected political reaction from Beijing.

Several aides said legislation is being considered for the current defense authorization bill, although mandating a specific sale of new F-16s would be difficult.

There is bipartisan support in Congress for the sale to Taiwan, for security and domestic economic reasons.

A bipartisan group of 45 senators wrote to President Obama on May 26 expressing “serious concerns about the military imbalance in the Taiwan Strait” and urged the sale of 66 new F-16s.

A report by a Texas-based financial group says the sale of new F-16s, produced by a division of Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., would generate $8.7 billion for contractors and subcontractors in 44 states. It also would create more than 87,664 jobs, the report says.

Lockheed has told government officials that without new F-16 orders, it may have to close down all or part of its production line.

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