The “highly personal, often bitter animosity existing between senior White House officials and senior Asia players at State” is how one of Washington’s nonpareil foreign-policy insider newsletters, Chris Nelson’s eponymous Nelson Report, describes the forces at the bottom of the Obama administration’s latest national security crisis: whether to sell 66 new F-16 fighters to Taiwan to replace unsafe Vietnam War-era F-5 jets.
Taiwan has hundreds of supporters on Capitol Hill, and two dozen House members made a point of greeting a visiting Taiwanese presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, at a reception in the Rayburn House Office Building on Sept. 14. Several senators also made the trek across Capitol Hill to show their support, including the venerable Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, chairman of the Senate Defense appropriations subcommittee, an unmistakable signal of broad bipartisan support for U.S. defense sales to Taiwan, especially the new F-16s.
Also on Sept. 14, an unnamed “senior American official” phoned a Washington correspondent of the Financial Times, a respected British newspaper, to ungraciously badmouth Ms. Tsai. He then declared he was speaking for the Obama administration. The State Department, which had been very supportive of Ms. Tsai, quickly denounced the “senior official” and flatly asserted that whoever he was, he “certainly did not speak for the administration.”
The “senior official,” who quickly was traced to the National Security Council staff, apparently was motivated by anxieties that Congress might force the Obama White House to approve new F-16s for Taiwan. Because Beijing is quite unhappy with any Taiwanese politician who isn’t wholeheartedly committed to Taiwan’s unification with China (and Ms. Tsai is not), the “senior official” no doubt hoped that discrediting Ms. Tsai would ingratiate Mr. Obama to the Chinese leadership. The Obama White House is on the verge of announcing “upgrades” of Taiwan’s existing fleet of 20-year-old F-16s and worries that China will be displeased. Trashing Ms. Tsai may have been a way to soften the announcement with Beijing.
The whole episode was bizarre.
Congress sees Taiwan as an authentic Asian democracy worthy of America’s support and, not incidentally, a customer for advanced aerospace weapons systems that would bring 20,000 new jobs to depressed defense production lines in Texas, Florida, Ohio and California and keep additional tens of thousands of engineers and skilled technicians employed in high-tech industrial sectors that are essential to America’s economic recovery.
Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the Pentagon also has a statutory mandate “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force” and another to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” The Defense Department, therefore, hopes to keep Taiwan’s armed forces strong enough to defend the island because otherwise U.S. forces will have to do the job.
The Pentagon has completed a congressionally mandated report on Taiwan’s air-power requirements, which, though still classified, warns that the military balance in the Taiwan Strait has tilted decisively toward China. Without replacement fighter aircraft, Taiwan will be unable to defend its airspace and the full responsibility of defending that island nation will fall completely on the United States. Pentagon analysts also point out that war-gamers running the latest iteration of “Terminal Fury” - a scenario for a crisis in the Taiwan Strait - cannot see how even the newest versions of the F-16 could survive a Chinese air assault for more than a few hours. Taiwan’s air force, they say, needs a new fleet of STOVL “short take-off and vertical landing” jets that can use the island’s modern highways as runways. In short, Taiwan needs the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, a STOVL jet that is designed for export to America’s friends and allies.
This is where bureaucratic “animosities” come in. President Obama’s top Asia advisers in the National Security Council (NSC), Daniel R. Russel and Evan S. Medeiros, are firmly pro-China, or at least do not believe anything - anything at all - is worth a confrontation with the Chinese. At the State Department, Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, and his team are firmly pro-everybody-else in Asia, or at least they do not see how the United States can sustain its core interests globally - human rights, democracy, freedom, fair trade, freedom of the seas and airspace, access to resources and a world safe from the rampant proliferation of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems - by abjuring its global leadership.
Taiwan is not a small part of America’s security architecture. For 60 years, since 1951, the United States has maintained a robust defense and trade relationship with Taiwan that has been a key link in America’s network of security cooperation and alliances in the Western Pacific. The broad question debated in the Obama administration is whether the United States will withdraw from Asia in the face of China’s inexorable military rise. Mr. Obama’s NSC apparently thinks the United States should simply bow to Chinese expansion, while State and Defense see Taiwan as emblematic of America’s commitments to the rest of Asia, from Japan and Australia through Southeast Asia to India. When asked about the Obama administration’s reluctance to sell the new F-16C/Ds to Taiwan, State people caution that the administration has not ruled out consideration of new jets for Taiwan at some point.
Congress has weighed in on the State-Defense side. Several new bills seek to require the administration to sell the latest F-16s to Taiwan, and there is an appreciation on the Hill that simply “upgrading” Taiwan’s deployed fleet of 145 older F-16A/Bs, while clearly necessary, equally clearly is not sufficient. Congress also sees that sustaining and creating new jobs in America’s advanced aerospace sectors is essential to economic recovery. New jet fighter sales to Taiwan should be a no-brainer; they help Taiwan defend itself and they employ U.S. aerospace engineers.
NSC staffers in the Obama White House, on the other hand, are letting “highly personal, often bitter animosity” get in the way of national security - and jobs. They also are abetting America’s demotion to a second-class power unwilling - but not quite unable - to challenge the hegemony of China’s ruthless, new brand of state mercantilism in Asia.
John J. Tkacik Jr. is a retired officer in the U.S. Foreign Service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.