Obama officials say talks with Taiwan about advanced F-16s will continue

The Obama administration said Wednesday Washington will upgrade Taiwan’s F-16A/B fighters under a new $5.9 billion arms deal, and will keep open talks with Taipei about the newest version of the Lockheed Martin-made jets.

President Obama decided late last week to move forward with a $5.9 billion arms package, but opted against selling the island nation F-16C/Ds. Those are the most technically advanced models of the Lockheed Martin-made fighter jet.

Instead, Washington will retrofit and upgrade 145 of Taipei’s existing F-16A/B fighters, according to a Defense Security Cooperation Agency statement.

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The Obama administration has made no final decision on eventually selling Taiwan the more advanced models of the fighter jet, senior administration officials told reporters Wednesday afternoon. Talks between Washington and Taipei about a future F-16C/D sale will continue, the officials said.

The senior administration officials told reporters “circumstances” dictated that upgrading the A/B models was the only feasible option at this time. He did not elaborate on those alleged circumstances.

Many in Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, have blasted the administration for opting against selling Taiwan the most advanced F-16s.

Some lawmakers, like Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) have floated the notion of forcing an F-16C/D sell in legislation.

“I’m deeply concerned that this is only a half-measure,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) said in a statement late Friday. “Everyone, including this Administration, acknowledges that the military balance across the Straits has tilted far too heavily toward China.

“Taiwan needs more-advanced fighter aircraft to adequately defend itself against the continued and increasing Chinese military threat,” Berman said. “I hope that this decision is only the first step. The United States must sell additional fighter aircraft to Taipei, whether F-16s or better, and soon.”

The issue also is being used as ammunition on the campaign trail by Republican presidential candidates.

“President Obama’s refusal to sell Taiwan new military jets is yet another example of his weak leadership in foreign policy.  Every American president for the past three decades — both Republican and Democrat — has recognized our interest in helping Taiwan defend itself,” former GOP Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said in a statement. 

“In the face of China's intensive military buildup, the United States needs the strongest possible partnerships in Asia,” Romney said. “However, President Obama has ignored Taiwan's request and caved into the unreasonable demands of China at the cost of well-paying American jobs. This decision raises serious questions about his commitment to our closest partners and to the policies that have sustained American leadership abroad.”

But the senior administration officials described the arms sales package as one big step in a broader effort to “pivot” U.S. attention from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region.

Part of that, as U.S. forces are removed from Iraq and Afghanistan over the next few years, will be a “repositioning” of military forces from those two nations to the Asia-Pacific, the senior officials said.

The Obama administration believes moving forward with the retrofit plan will give Taiwan more military capability faster — and in larger numbers than would selling it the newest F-16s, the officials said. The A/B upgrade plan will bolster “the backbone” of Taipei’s military and ensure it can protect its skies during peacetime and if a “crisis” were to break out, one of the officials said.

Relations between China and Taiwan have warmed in recent years, but a recent Pentagon study concluded Beijing’s military force and strategy remain tailored for a war with its neighbor.

The senior administration officials said they informed their counterparts at the Chinese Embassy in Washington of the arms package on Wednesday, and received threats that the move would spawn “consequences.”

The Chinese official did not elaborate on what those alleged consequences might be, the administration officials said.

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The arms package, as described earlier this year by administration officials, also includes sophisticated radar systems, hundreds of various kinds of advanced missiles and precision-guided bombs, targeting pods for fighter jets, electronic warfare systems and night-vision goggles, according to DSCA. That part of the package totals about $5.3 billion

Washington also will sell Taipei spare parts of its F-16s, F-5 fighters and C-130H cargo planes, totaling $52 million. The third leg of the package is a $500 million deal on F-16 pilot training and logistical support.

The Obama administration has proposed selling $12 billion worth of military equipment to Taiwan since it took office, the senior officials said, saying that is “twice as much” than sold to the island nation by the George W. Bush administration.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, accused the White House of bending to pressure from Chinese officials about the F-16C/Ds.

“This deal has Beijing’s fingerprints all over it,” Ros-Lehtinen said Wednesday.

The senior administration officials said they do not discuss any potential military equipment sale with Beijing.

“The upgrade of older model F-16s is a modest step in the right direction but woefully insufficient to meet Taiwan’s increasingly urgent requirements for modern combat fighters and other defensive weapons systems. The administration’s most recent China Military Power Report clearly shows the threats that Taiwan faces from an increasingly aggressive China," Ros-Lehtinen said. 

"The decision by the administration not to include the F-16 C/D fighter in this package calls into question the administration’s commitment to longstanding policy to ensure that Taiwan is able to defend itself from mainland China," Ros-Lehtinen said.

—Updated at 5:23 p.m.