Asia-Pacific

Taiwan sweats on US arms sales decision

File image of an ageing F-5 jet on the runway in Hualien on 25 May 2011
Image caption Taiwan wants 66 F-16 C/D fighter jets to upgrade its ageing F-5 fleet

Sherry Huang, a retired accountant and grandmother, is not someone you would expect to get worked up over international arms sales, but ask her why Taiwan needs advanced fighter jets from the United States and she will give you an earful.

"Without them, people are worried. If China gets stronger, we won't even have the strength to protect ourselves. It's like you have a thug living next door, with guns pointed at you, threatening you not to speak or he'll shoot you," she says.

The US has provided weapons to the Republic of China, now in Taiwan, since World War II.

It is the only country which has sold arms to Taiwan in recent years and is required by US law to provide the island with weapons to help it maintain a sufficient self-defence capability.

But in the past year there has been growing concern that the US resolve to help Taiwan defend itself may have weakened, as Washington increasingly needs good relations with China.

What Taiwan wants in particular are 66 F-16 C/D fighter jets to upgrade its ageing fleet.

This week, three air force personnel were killed when two older generation aircraft crashed into a mountain.

An investigation is under way, but officials told the BBC that problems caused by ageing equipment are one of the main causes of accidents involving fighter jets.

Pressured by some US politicians, the Obama administration has agreed to announce its decision on the sale by 1 October.

It is not a topic that comes up in casual conversation, but most Taiwanese people agree that the island needs more weapons to defend itself in case of an attack by China.

That is not to say they expect a war to break out between Taipei and Beijing - who have enjoyed warmer relations in recent years.

But China still has 1,500 missiles targeting Taiwan, and has not renounced the threat of force to take back the island, which it still claims as its province.

Taiwanese people know they must be prepared.

Foot-dragging

Critics have blamed US President Barack Obama and Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou for not agreeing a new package of arms.

Image caption China has made arms sales to Taiwan the number one irritant of the US-China bilateral relationship

Some critics say Mr Obama has been dragging his feet and that Mr Ma has not actively sought the weapons.

But the last time a significant package of weapons was approved was in 2001 - including Patriot missiles, Black Hawk helicopters and equipment for Taiwan's existing F-16 fleet, but no submarines or new fighter jets.

Some sort of weapons sales and military personnel training have occurred every year, according to analysts, but most of the weapons are parts replacements and not more advanced weaponry.

Alexander Huang, a professor at Taipei's Tamkang University specialising in China-Taiwan defence issues, says the US changed its handling of weapons sales to Taiwan after the 11 September attacks.

At that time, President George W Bush scrapped annual weapons talks between Taipei and Washington.

"After 9/11, and [with] the rise of Chinese influence and the lack of the annual talks vehicle, it gave Washington a way to postpone Taiwan's [weapons] requests," he said.

"When China exerted pressure over the US government, there were times when the US asked Taiwan not to file a request."

Mr Huang believes the Obama administration's hands are tied.

"The US does not want to antagonise China. China has made arms sales to Taiwan the number one irritant of the US-China bilateral relationship," he says.

"This kind of dilemma is bothering the Obama administration. You can cite various reasons: China's large holdings of US treasury bonds, collaboration on North Korea, Iran; there are a lot of issues over which the US doesn't want to antagonise China."

In recent days, China has issued a stern warning to the US, through the Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper, that US-China relations will be damaged if Mr Obama proceeds with an arms sale to Taiwan.

However, analysts say China's reaction is not likely to be as severe as its threats.

In the past, the most China has done is react angrily and cancel military exchanges between Washington and Beijing, as well as not allowing US ships to make calls at the Hong Kong port.

It did just that after a $6.4bn (£4bn) weapons deal authorised by Mr Bush was approved by Mr Obama in 2010, but Beijing has since resumed high-level military exchanges with the US.

Analysts say they do not believe Beijing will cancel economic contracts, as a worsening US economy will also hurt China.

'Wrong message'

Taiwan's air fleet currently consists of two-decade-old F-16 A/B fighters (there are few countries still flying them), French Mirage 2000-5 fighters that are also about 20 years old, and 35-year-old F5 fighters that it wants to retire soon.

Image caption Since the 1950s, Taiwan has patrolled the region, sharing information it collects with the US

The fighters Taiwan seeks - F-16 C/Ds - can carry more bombs for each sortie and conduct more efficient attacks against ground targets.

Taiwan's deputy defence secretary Andrew Yang says a US refusal to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan could send the wrong message to China, and affect regional security.

"It encourages China to stop Taiwan's self-defence activity," he says.

Since the 1950s, Taiwan has patrolled the region, including areas of the East China Sea and South China Sea bordering China, and shared information it collects with the US, Mr Yang said, adding that this role is little known and often taken for granted.

"We're not just protecting the island itself, we conduct daily patrols of a much bigger region, beyond Taiwanese territory," Mr Yang says.

"If we don't get replacement or new aircraft, we don't patrol these areas. They will see there's a vacuum here. Of course it will give more leverage to whoever wants to cause problems. Then the US will have to make extra effort to fill the gap."

In recent days, local and international media have reported that the US is more likely to help Taiwan upgrade its fleet of F-16 A/B fighter jets, rather than selling the more advanced F-16 C/D fighters.

This week, US Senators Robert Menendez and John Cornyn introduced a bill in an attempt to force Mr Obama to approve the deal on the argument that the US is bound by a 1979 law to sell the island sufficient weapons for its defence.

They argue that the sale would benefit the US economy and save jobs. The deal is estimated to cost $8bn.

Another politician, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, has introduced similar legislation in the House of Representatives, arguing China must not be allowed to dictate US policy in the Pacific.

Earlier this year, American politicians including 45 senators and 181 members of the House of Representatives wrote to Mr Obama to support a sale of F-16C/Ds.

Sherry Huang is hopeful the US will come through for Taiwan, but she cannot contain her scepticism.

"We believe Americans have a sense of public welfare, but that often loses in the face of economic considerations," she says.

More on this story