TAIPEI, Taiwan – Repeated requests from Taiwan's president for new American fighter jets are putting the Obama administration in a bind, pressuring it to choose between providing advanced weaponry to the democratic island and nurturing its important relationship with China.
President Ma Ying-jeou's latest plea for 66 F-16 C/Ds, made in a videoconference with a Washington think tank last week, likened procurement of the warplanes to a confidence booster for Taiwan, allowing it to negotiate further with Beijing in one of Asia's perennial flash points.
The plea is a reminder that Beijing's growing power and influence is raising the costs of Washington's involvement in the decades-long feud between Taiwan and China.
While the U.S. has committed itself to providing Taiwan the means to defend against a Chinese attack — something the mainland has threatened if the island moves to make its de facto independence permanent — it knows that doing so would undermine its ability to improve ties with China and to secure Chinese help on pressing issues such as North Korean nuclear proliferation.
China sees the F-16 issue "as an opportunity to pressure America into downgrading the U.S. commitment to Taiwan," said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, head of a U.S.-Taiwan business group whose members include arms manufacturers. "If they can pressure America into saying no or not saying yes, U.S. policy will have taken a big step toward China's position on arms sales."
For the time being, the Obama administration is addressing the Taiwan defense dilemma by deciding not to decide. Mindful of Beijing's incensed reaction to its early 2010 approval of a $6.4 billion Taiwan arms package, it has shown no interest in a reprise.
Ma's government also has sent mixed signals about its willingness to bolster Taiwan's defenses, saying that the island can ill afford an arms race with an increasingly deep-pocketed Beijing. Just this month the Defense Ministry acknowledged it was delaying procurement of two U.S. weapons systems, because of what a lawmaker from Ma's party said was a budget shortfall.
The delays and mixed signals are a balm to Beijing, which is taking over the pivotal position in the Taiwan-China-U.S. relationship, one of the keys to maintaining stability in the western Pacific.
Ma has made economic engagement with Beijing a cornerstone of his administration, and that has reduced tensions across the 100-mile- (160-kilometer-) wide Taiwan Strait to perhaps their lowest since the sides split amid civil war six decades ago.
Some American power brokers say that Ma's success in lowering tensions gives Washington an opportunity to cast Taiwan adrift.
Military relations are already much diminished from the 1960s and early 1970s, when Taiwan was a key American ally, hosting a string of U.S. air force bases and providing sensitive intelligence on China. Washington's decision to transfer recognition from Taipei to Beijing as the legitimate government of China in 1979 changed that almost overnight.
The U.S. maintains military ties with Taiwan, including cooperation on terror-related issues and the widely reported presence of a National Security Agency communications facility on the island.
Taiwan says it needs the F-16 C/Ds to arrest the island's declining aerial might in the face of a sustained Chinese military buildup.
It has submitted at least three formal applications for the warplanes, to no avail. It has also asked for an upgrade of its rapidly aging fleet of 146 F-16 A/Bs.
A senior Taiwanese legislative aide privy to negotiations on the F-16s says that despite support from the Pentagon, opposition to the sale of the advanced F-16s is coming from the State Department, which remains concerned that it would anger China.
However, the aide said, Washington and Taipei are negotiating over the upgrades, and that could go through if agreement is reached on issues such as the sophistication of the weapons package.
Taiwan hopes the U.S. will drop restrictions that limit the air-to-land attack capabilities of the planes' mission computer, the aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
A spokesman at the de facto American embassy in Taipei declined to comment on the F-16 talks.
In recent months, the head of the U.S. Senate intelligence committee Dianne Feinstein and China expert and former U.S. diplomat Chas Freeman have said that the improved environment across the Taiwan Strait means Washington can end its Taiwan arms sale obligation.
While those cries are growing, U.S. concern about China's possible emergence as a military rival in the Pacific appear to be holding the dump Taiwan lobby in check.
"Americans have realized that on some issues, mainly economic, China is important to the U.S.," said Richard Bush, a former U.S. envoy to Taipei, in an email. "On others China is a problem, and on those lobbying doesn't make much difference."
The months ahead could prove rocky. Ma faces a tough re-election fight next January, during which he will likely have to show that while ties with Beijing are improving, relations with Washington are solid; the F-16s would be proof. Should Ma lose, Beijing would almost certainly ramp up tensions with his successor, whose party is at least formally committed to Taiwanese independence. That too would seem to argue for a sale of the F-16s.
Peter Enav, the AP's Taipei correspondent, has covered U.S.-Taiwan relations for six years. Associated Press writer Debby Wu contributed to this report.