By John T. Bennett - 10/05/11 12:05 AM EDT
There is at least one issue that unites some Republicans and Democrats in an otherwise bitterly partisan House: the White House’s decision to avoid selling Taiwan new F-16s.
Now the White House is taking fire from friends and foes in the lower chamber who want Washington to sell Taipei the newer model.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the decision makes Washington look “timid before Beijing.”
The Republican invoked the words of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt in bashing Obama’s F-16 plans, citing one of FDR’s famous fireside chats in which he “told the American people that ‘We must be the great arsenal of democracy’ to provide the means for the small island country of Great Britain to preserve mutually cherished democratic values.”
To Ros-Lehtinen, Obama has “beaten a steady retreat not only from its obligations mandated in the Taiwan Relations Act, but from the spirit of FDR’s words, by not providing sufficient means for Taiwan’s defense.”
She called Taiwan’s fighter fleet — composed of American-made F-16s and F-5s, an indigenous fighter jet and French-made Mirage fighters — “old, rickety aircraft.”
Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the panel’s ranking member, said Taiwan “needs more advanced F-16s to adequately defend itself from China — and it needs them soon.”
The F-16 upgrade plan will leave the island nation with 275 total fighter jets by 2020 — too few for Berman and other panel members, considering China’s development and positioning of its own war planes and missile systems.
“As a result of the administration’s decision, Taiwan will ultimately have 145 F-16s that have been retrofitted to be equivalent to the F-16C/Ds through the sale of the upgrade kits,” Berman said. “But if the administration had provided both the upgrade kits and the advanced fighters requested by Taipei, then Taiwan would have 211 F-16C/D aircraft delivered in the same time period as the upgrade kits alone.”
The package — estimated to cost Taipei $5.3 billion, according to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency — is still a win for Lockheed, already the world’s top manufacturer of military equipment.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) called it “unacceptable” that the White House and Congress “don’t support Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.” He said selling the more advanced Lockheed-made F-16s to Taipei should be a no-brainer for that very reason: “They aren’t going to attack China.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) questioned the administration’s contention that upgraded A/B models are “comparable” to the newer C/D jets.
“If they’re as good as the C/Ds, why are we not selling [Taiwan] the 66 C/Ds?” Connolly asked State Department and Pentagon officials. “Why are we quibbling?”
During a recent visit to the Asian island nation, a U.S. delegation that included Connolly “didn’t meet one Taiwanese defense official who didn’t [prefer] the C/Ds.”
Panel member Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said opting against giving Taiwan the best F-16s shows the administration is “giving China too much sway” over its decisions.
And Del. Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) worries the decision and other moves reveals Washington’s support for Taiwan is mostly “symbolic.”
Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Peter Lavoy defended the F-16 upgrade plan.
“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 make a significant contribution to Taiwan’s air power.”
Though no panel members called for legislation that would require Washington to sell the C/D models to Taipei, Berman told The Hill he thinks such a measure would pass the House.
Berman said he has heard that at least one senator is preparing an amendment to a bill targeting Beijing’s currency manipulation tactics that would do just that.
If the Senate held such a vote, “it would be unprecedented,” Berman said in a brief interview. “But I think that would pass if there was a vote on the Senate floor.”