WASHINGTON - The past month has seen some convoluted twists and turns in what
seems to be the never-ending saga of Taiwanese arms procurement.
In the second half of June it was reported in the Taiwanese media that the
Taiwanese government had requested that the US government halt some US$12
billion in arms sales, originally proposed by the George W Bush administration
in April 2001.
This request by President Ma Ying-jeou's Kuomintang (KMT) administration, which
came into office in May, harkens back to its day as an opposition party, when
it was responsible for a delay of
years for many of the items on the weapons shopping list.
Ma's election produced the first KMT president in eight years and demonstrated
public dissatisfaction with the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party
(DPP). The return of the KMT gave Beijing the green light to go forward with
formal talks on establishing direct flights, economic accords and a potential
On June 12, the Washington Post reported that in addition to holding up the
arms package, senior US officials such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley are holding up the delivery of 66
F-16 C/D Block 50/52 fighter jets for Taiwan, estimated to cost $5 billion,
possibly until Bush leaves office.
The Post story confirmed what had earlier been reported in Taiwan; that
Taiwan's government had privately urged that notifications to the US Congress
for future arms sales not be sent in coming weeks as it completes talks with
China on launching charter flights and expanding tourism, while Rice and other
top officials appeared reluctant to irritate Beijing amid negotiations over
North Korea's nuclear program.
The US's reluctance is not hard to understand. Given that with Ma Ying-jeou's
election as Taiwan's president, Taiwan and China have their first real chance
in eight years to improve ties. The United States is worried that a big arms
sales package is going to throw a wrench in the works and give China an excuse
The notifications to the US Congress would need to be made at least one month
before an October lawmakers' break if the sales are to proceed this year.
The last time the Bush administration notified the US Congress about potential
arms sales to Taiwan was on November 9, 2007, for a Patriot-2 missile deal
worth US$939 million. But Taipei wants the newer Patriot-3 missiles.
The blanket freeze on the 2001 arms sales package, which includes submarines
and PAC-3s air defense missiles, is unprecedented in Taiwan-US relations.
Taiwan asked to buy new F-16s last year, but thus far the Bush administration
has refused to accept formal paperwork needed to process the request, according
to the US-Taiwan Business Council, which represents about 100 companies doing
business in Taiwan, including contractors such as Lockheed Martin.
The new F-16s would supplement 150 F-16A/B models sold to Taiwan by Bush's
father, the first president Bush, in 1992.
Joseph Wu, Taiwan's envoy to Washington, urged the US on June 10 to approve the
sale of the jets as soon as possible. This, however, would put the Bush
administration in an awkward position ahead of the Summer Olympic Games in
Beijing in August.
Taiwan asked to buy new F-16s last year, but the Bush administration has
refused to accept formal paperwork needed to process the request, according to
the US-Taiwan Business Council, which represents about 100 companies doing
business in Taiwan, including contractors such as Lockheed Martin.
Reportedly, the US de facto embassy in Taipei, the American Institute in Taiwan
(AIT), has turned down a letter of request (LOR) for price and availability
data for 66 F-16s for almost two years.
Wu made his remarks after the business council, now headed by Paul Wolfowitz, a
former deputy secretary of defense under Bush, accused the administration of
tampering with the US arms sales process.
Aside from the jets the weapons package includes the 30 Apache attack
helicopters, 60 Black Hawk helicopters, eight submarines and four Patriot air
defense missile batteries, according to the Post.
Meanwhile, on June 25 President Ma told a United States National Committee on
United States-China Relations delegation, led by former US secretary of
defense, William Perry, that Taiwan will continue to allocate funds for
defensive arms to "ensure a solid national defense force".
"We will rationalize our defense budget to acquire the necessary defensive
weaponry to form a solid national defense force to show our will to protect the
nation," said Ma in the Presidential Office.
Meanwhile, the news of a possible arms freeze has energized Republican
legislators in the US Congress.
On June 30 US Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, co-chair of the Senate Taiwan
Caucus, was joined by 13 senate colleagues to send a letter to Bush urging him
to carry out the US commitment to provide Taiwan with weapons systems
consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act. The letter said, in part:
welcome Taiwan's effort to bolster its defense capabilities and request for
American arms. Upon reception of Congressional Notifications, we look forward
to the opportunity to work with the administration in completing these sales as
soon as possible. We are concerned by recent reports of a possible "freeze" on
all foreign military sales to Taiwan. We believe that any freeze on foreign
military sales to Taiwan violates the spirit of the Taiwan Relations Act. We
have made attempts to clarify the status of these requests but to no avail. We
request a briefing on the status of these sales from all appropriate agencies,
and urge the Administration to expeditiously execute consideration of these
Asked about the issue on July 11 in Washington DC,
Tan Chih-lung, chief of a Taiwan's military delegation to the United States,
confirmed that there are eight congressional notifications pending in the
Department of State and that it remains uncertain as to whether the arms
procurements can be completed within Bush's term.
These include anti-tank missiles, Apache helicopters, Patriot PAC-3 missile
batteries, diesel-powered submarines, P3C anti-submarine aircraft and
sea-launched Harpoon missiles, Tan said.
On July 12, Taiwanese National Security Council (NSC) secretary general Sue Chi
denied he had received a phone call from the US White House in which the arms
procurement issue was raised.
Sue Chi issued the denial in response to a report that White House National
Security Advisor Stephen Hadley rang Su to inform him of the Bush
administration's decision to freeze various arms sales to Taiwan and request
that the Taiwan authorities avoid any comments on related issues.
On July 14, the Liberty Times newspaper reported that the Taiwanese cabinet
told the Defense Ministry to halt in 2009 the plan to upgrade its self-made
Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF) warplanes (Hsiang Chan Wings Spread Project)
so as not to hurt recently improved ties with China.
Taiwan began to develop the IDF, a high-altitude interceptor, in 1980, when it
was still unable to obtain F-16s from the United States. With the help of
General Dynamics, maker of the F-16, Taiwan has built 130 IDFs.
On July 16, Admiral Timothy Keating, head of the US Pacific Command, confirmed
the US has frozen arms sales to Taiwan. Speaking at a forum of the conservative
Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC he said the decision was made after
having "reconciled Taiwan's military posture, China's current military posture
and strategy that indicates there is no pressing, compelling need for, at this
moment, arms sales to Taiwan".
But the following day Taiwanese military spokeswoman Liza Chi Yu-lan said that
the Defense Ministry had not received any official notice from the US about the
Meanwhile, in a non-clarifying clarification State Department spokesman Sean
McCormack had this exchange during the daily press briefing:
Question (Phoenix TV of Hong Kong): My question is regarding Taiwan.
What is the current position of the US, you know, regarding on arms sales to
Taiwan? Has it changed, the position?
McCormack: The short answer is no. But let me reiterate for you what our
policy is. The administration faithfully implements the Taiwan Relations Act,
under which the United States makes available items necessary for Taiwan to
maintain a sufficient defense. There is an internal interagency process for the
United States government to consider all military exports, including sales to
Taiwan. When the interagency process achieves a final decision for specific
arms sales, we will notify congress. We do not comment on specific weapons
systems under consideration. And you should all know that we faithfully carry
out the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act.
Question: So can I follow up? Is it true that it is frozen for the arms
sale for a while, you know?
McCormack: I have stated the US government policy on this matter.
Question: Sean, a follow-up? Admiral Keating of the PACOM - I mean the
US Commander of the Pacific Command - he said the other day that - you know, he
actually - he confirmed that there is actually a freeze on the arms sales to
Taiwan. So do you have any comment about his, you know, comment?
McCormack: I saw those remarks. And what I would do is I would point you
to what I have just given you as the official United States government policy
that is applicable for all US government agencies, whether it's the Department
of Defense, Department of State or any other part of the US government. So I
would look to this statement that I've just given you as the official US
government policy position.
Since then it has been reported that Taiwan has abandoned a bid to buy 66 F-16
fighter jets from the US in an attempt to rescue the larger arms package before
Bush leaves the White House, according to national security officials in
David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security
affairs, email@example.com. He is also a member of the Coalition for a
Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute,
contributor to the Straus Military Reform Project, a research fellow at the
Independent Institute, and a US Navy veteran. The views expressed are his own.