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Taiwan's F-16 Upgrade Risks the U.S.-China Relationship

For a number of years, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou asked the U.S. to sell F-16C/Ds to Taiwan.  Taiwan currently has 140 F-16A/Bs, bought almost two decades ago.  The U.S., in fear of infuriating China, tried to take a safe route and have only promised an upgrade to the existing fighter planes.  However, that mere upgrade might still have an impact on the military balance of the region because such an upgrade could turn the F-16s from fighters to fighter-bombers.

The upgrades the U.S. have promised to provide to Taiwan’s existing F-16s may cause some concern in China.  First, it includes the advanced GPS-guided smart bombs, which will enhance Taiwan’s ground-attacking capability.  The upgrade also provides satellite guidance to the fighters, which means the weapons can be deployed in all weather conditions.

The most striking issue with the upgrade is that it actually provides the Taiwanese an enhanced attacking capability, rather than defensive capability.  Hypothetically, if China and Taiwan goes into a war, it will mostly involve sea and air battles.  But the smart bombs are most effectively used when the Taiwanese attack targets near China’s coast areas.

As a likely concession to sooth Chinese anger over the upgrade, the U.S. will most likely limit the combat radius below 1000 km.  Nevertheless, such bombing radius will still include important coastal areas such as Shanghai.

Domestically, Taiwanese have low expectations from such upgrades provided by the U.S.  They believe that war with China is a near improbability and the Americans hardly honor any promises they make.  Furthermore, they believe the planes themselves are too outdated to carry such modern weaponry.

Despite such low expectation, the whole process of the U.S. supporting Taiwanese airforce can be seen through the context of the U.S. re-engaging in the Asia Pacific region.  The previous administration has been too caught up with the “war on terror” in the Middle East, and now the new administration is re-launching their efforts to contain China’s ambition of bullying the Asian Pacific region with its superior military strength.

Taiwan is the most important geographical area to contain China’s military strength.  The maritime line that spans from northern half of the Philippines through Korea’s west coasts is strategically China’s defensive perimeter.  Taiwan is the island closest to China’s defensive line, so its strategic importance cannot be overestimated.

The U.S. really has no other alternatives but to support the Taiwanese airforce with advanced weaponry with the risk of straining their ties with China.  The U.S. want to make sure that China does not pressure the neighboring countries with its military superiority.

For detailed information, please find the article in Asia Times Online.


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