Taiwan lobbyists pressure White House to approve sale of F-16 fighter jets

Lobbyists for Taiwan have been working behind the scenes to pressure the White House into selling advanced F-16 fighter jets to the longtime U.S. ally.

A lobbying team of former congressional aides and ex-lawmakers representing Taiwan spent the better part of the year gathering lawmaker signatures for two letters that were sent to President Obama arguing for the sale of the most advanced fighter jets to the country. 

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Despite the pressure, the Obama administration opted against selling Taiwan the F-16 C/D, the most technically advanced model of the fighter jet, instead selling the country upgrade kits for its existing fleet of F-16 A/Bs.

That move has riled Capitol Hill, and both Democratic and Republican lawmakers are rallying behind legislation that would require the president to sell the advanced F-16s to Taiwan. 

Lobbyists for the country claim the Obama administration decided against the F-16 sale for fearing of provoking China, which considers Taiwan its province rather than an independent nation.

“Considering Taiwan would only use these planes for defensive purposes, it was a short-sighted blunder on the administration’s part not to sell Taiwan the new planes,” Sean King, vice president of Park Strategies, told The Hill. “We can’t let ourselves be bullied by Beijing. After all, the United States is mainland China’s No. 1 nation-state export market. Beijing needs us more than we sometimes realize.”

Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Peter Lavoy defended the F-16 upgrade plan last week before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Taiwan defense spending cannot match [China’s], nor can it develop the same type of military [China] is developing. Taiwan needs to focus its planning and procurement efforts on nontraditional innovative and asymmetric approaches — there is no single solution,” Lavoy said. “Given this context, we believe the F-16A/B upgrade makes a significant contribution to Taiwan’s air power.”

The Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office — essentially Taiwan’s embassy in Washington — has at least nine lobby shops and law firms working on its behalf, spending more than $1 million in 2011 so far, according to Justice records. Ex-Sens. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) and Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) are representing the country, along with former Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.).

Park Strategies, D’Amato’s firm, was one of the more aggressive lobby shops for Taiwan this year.

Lobbyists at the firm contacted lawmakers at least 44 times about the F-16 sale to Taiwan, according to Justice records. Taiwan has paid Park Strategies close to $250,000 in lobbying fees so far this year. 

Emails on file with the Justice Department reveal lobbyists were often unsure if congressional offices had been previously contacted about signing onto letters that supported the advanced F-16 sale. 

“Please accept my apologies in advance if you’ve already been approached on this matter, but might Sen. [John] Thune [R-S.D.] consider adding his signature to it?” said King, of Park Strategies, in an email to a Thune aide.

The lobby firms also explained in the emails how congressional delegation trips to Taiwan would not require taxpayer funds.

“Please know that no U.S. taxpayer funds would be used to pay for your trip, as Taiwan would cover your trip via the State Department’s Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act,” D’Amato said in an Aug. 15 letter to Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSenators demand Pentagon action after nude photo scandal Chelsea Clinton to be honored by Variety, Lifetime Ten years later, House Dems reunite and look forward MORE (D-N.Y.).

The emails show how past relationships come into play on K Street. 

D’Amato cited his days as a senator when imploring Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) to visit Taiwan.

“You were one of my dearest friends when I was in the Senate,” D’Amato, now managing director at Park Strategies, wrote in a May 18 letter to Inouye. “And it would mean a lot to me if you ever visit Taiwan this year.”

Fossella, now with Park Strategies, was also part of the firm’s effort to have lawmakers visit Taiwan.

Other firms were actively lobbying for the advanced F-16 sale.

Orion Strategies, which is headed up by Randy Scheunemann, a foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCainJohn McCainGraham: Nunes should reveal surveillance source Intel Dem on Nunes: ‘This is what a cover-up to a crime looks like’ McCain: Nunes has 'a lot of explaining to do' MORE’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign, is among those working for Taiwan.

One of Orion’s lobbyists, Mike Mitchell, has recorded making at least 45 contacts on Capitol Hill regarding the F-16 sale, according to Justice records. The firm has earned $78,000 in fees from Taiwan this year.

Others are joining the cause. The Cedar Group, which has been contracted with Taiwan since 2008, added a new clause to its renewed contract this year “to develop a strategy to gain support for arms sales,” according to the agreement. Murkowski, the former Alaska Republican senator and governor, works at the firm.

Overall, 181 House members signed an Aug. 1 letter sent to Obama encouraging him to sell the latest jets to Taiwan. That followed a May 26 letter from 45 senators, also encouraging the sale.

Lobbyists for Taiwan contacted at least 26 of the House letter co-signers about the F-16 sale, according to Justice records, along with 20 of the 45 senators who signed on to their chamber’s letter. 

Lawmakers say selling the advanced F-16s would mean new U.S. jobs, which they say would be a boost for the struggling economy.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynWounded Ryan faces new battle This week: GOP picks up the pieces after healthcare defeat GOP senators pitch alternatives after House pulls ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (R-Texas) has introduced legislation that would require the president to sell the F-16s to Taiwan. Rep. Kay GrangerKay GrangerA guide to the committees: House Obama released 1M to Palestinians in final hours GOP recruitment goal: More women on ticket MORE (R-Texas) has offered similar legislation in the House. Both bills have several Democratic co-sponsors. 

A Cornyn aide said the senator will continue to push for the F-16 sale to Taiwan, despite Cornyn failing to attach his bill to the China currency measure, which began to advance in the Senate last week.

“Sen. Cornyn continues to explore all legislative options to mandate the administration to sell Taiwan the new C/Ds, which they’ve requested and is mandated by Congress,” said Drew Brandewie, Cornyn’s press secretary.

Further, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced the Taiwan Policy Act of 2011, which includes a provision forcing the sale of the F-16s.

A spokesman for Ros-Lehtinen said the lawmaker plans to schedule a committee markup for her legislation in the coming weeks.

Asked if the votes are there to pass legislation requiring the president to sell the F-16s, King of Park Strategies said it’s possible.

“While difficult, it’s possible,” King said. “Friends of Taiwan must keep the pressure on to ensure this administration, or a new one in 2013, sells Taiwan the new F-16 C/Ds. We, the United States, can never appear to waver in our commitment to, or support for, Taiwan.”