The time has come for the United States to consider ending the sale of upgrades for F-16 fighter aircraft to Taiwan and instead shift military sales and cooperation to emphasize anti-access capabilities and concepts of operation.
U.S. policy toward Taiwan has always been a delicate dance. The United States supports a “one China” policy and it maintains a strategic relationship with Beijing, but Washington is legislatively required to support Taiwan’s “sufficient self-defense capabilities” thanks to the Taiwan Relations Act. A certain amount of diplomatic savvy is required to simultaneously pursue such seemingly contradictory policies.
Against this backdrop, decisions relating to F-16 sales have become a leading indicator of U.S. intentions vis-à-vis Beijing and Taipei. If the United States sells new F-16s to Taiwan, Beijing may perceive it as a threat to the Sino-U.S. strategic relationship and the PRC’s position in the region. If the United States refuses to arm Taiwan at all, it would not only be found in violation of the Taiwan Relations Act, but Taiwan would then be forced to make the grand strategic assumption that it no longer has U.S. support. The Obama administration has continued the delicate dance of its predecessors, offering an interim solution of not shipping F-16s to Taiwan but instead offering to help modernize Taiwan’s existing fleet.