A BEIJING newspaper recently declared that America and China “risk misinterpreting each other and forcing an unexpected showdown”. Fearful of this, America has trodden warily in its consideration of how to improve Taiwan’s ageing fleet of fighter jets. Its decision, announced in Washington on September 21st, is a compromise that will avert an immediate showdown but leave Taiwan feeling hardly any more secure.
The deal is to upgrade Taiwan’s 145 F-16 A/B jets at a cost of $5.9 billion. The island will not, at least for the time being, get the 66 new F-16 C/D fighters that it (and some American legislators) had wanted. American officials, anxious to placate China, Taiwan and politicians at home, have been spinning this decision in ways aimed at satisfying all three parties.
To the Chinese, it is being presented as a step short of what officials in Beijing say is a dangerous red line. For the Taiwanese, and American congressmen, the message is that upgraded A/Bs are much the same as C/Ds anyway, and that Taiwan will get more advanced fighters than it had asked for, at a lower cost. (Texans hoping for thousands of extra jobs building new C/Ds at Lockheed Martin’s F-16 production lines in their state will still be disappointed.) Taiwan’s 20-year-old F-16s make up more than a third of its fighters. Some 60 other jets are Vietnam-war era F-5s mainly used for training, and hardly fit for that—another two F-5s crashed on September 13th, the latest in a string of such incidents.
The Chinese have ranted in response, as they do over every American arms sale to Taiwan. But the Americans are hoping that China’s longer-term reaction this time will be somewhat more restrained. A sale of brand new F-16s would have been difficult for the Chinese government to ignore. It has long been peeved by America’s perceived failure to live up to its 1982 commitment to cut weapons sales to the island. Part of that accord required both countries to “create conditions conducive” to achieving a “final settlement” of the arms issue—hardly fulfilled, American officials say, by China’s military build-up on the coast facing Taiwan. After the original sale of F-16s to Taiwan in 1992, a furious China sold medium-range missiles to Pakistan, snubbing American efforts to curb their spread in unstable regions. The sale of $6.4 billion- worth of American arms to Taiwan in January 2010 caused China to cut off military ties for months. Military-to-military relations are likely to be affected again this time but, many analysts say, less severely.
For President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan, the outcome will be little surprise and no great blow. In recent years, rapid improvements in China’s fighter fleet have eroded the island’s long-held belief that it could dominate the skies over the Taiwan Strait. Against China’s 300-400 Russian-designed SU-27 and SU-30 fighters, even 66 new F-16s would probably have been too little to reverse the trend. And China’s increasingly accurate missiles (more than 1,000 of them pointing at Taiwan) could damage Taiwan’s air bases, making it difficult for the island even to deploy its fighter jets.
Since taking office in 2008, Mr Ma has worked hard to improve cross-strait ties. China wants him to win another term in the next presidential election in January, but that could constrain China’s options. Global Times, a Beijing newspaper, said on September 17th that China used to seek revenge on America after arms sales to Taiwan. This time, it said, “it should also include Taipei, as Beijing has more leverage on the island”. But the article was referring to the possibility of America selling new F-16s. It is unlikely that the Communist Party would want to restrict the cross-strait economic interaction that Mr Ma has championed, since it believes such links give it increased influence over the island. Punishing Taiwan economically would play into the hands of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is far more suspicious of China and the benefits of open trade with it.
The DPP will try to convince voters that America’s rejection of any sale of new F-16s is a sign that Mr Ma’s efforts to strengthen ties with America (as well as with China) have not worked. The announcement comes at an awkward time for Mr Ma, who is in a tight contest in the presidential race against the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen, a former head of cross-strait affairs, who takes a softer line on China than many in her party. Mr Ma’s prospects were dealt a potential blow on September 20th by the decision of James Soong, a former heavyweight in Mr Ma’s own party, the Kuomintang (KMT), to run against him, potentially splitting the KMT vote.
Some politicians in America are showing their support for Mr Ma. An unidentified senior official in Washington, quoted in the Financial Times, said a few days before the F-16 deal that Ms Tsai’s China policy could threaten cross-strait stability. The motives of this official have been hotly debated in Taiwan, with some suggesting the remarks were aimed at soothing China before the announcement.
America’s coolness towards the previous Taiwanese president, Chen Shui-bian of the DPP (now in jail for corruption), helped to persuade officials in Beijing that despite the arms sales, America was no backer of the DPP’s more militant wing. Encouraged by Mr Chen, DPP hardliners want to move closer towards outright independence. America is prepared to risk approaching red lines on arms sales. But it has little doubt that a formal separation from China by Taiwan could mean war.