The 'big stick' and the fighter gap

Article Highlights

  • #Obama's lack of resolve under congressional pressure could actually advance #US national security interests.

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  • Has it just now decided that the #Taiwan - #China "fighter gap" is important? What changed?

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  • Most allies haven't a clue how the pivot to #Asia will manifest itself and what role they should be playing.

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The day after Biden's "big stick" speech, arguing the case for Obama's toughness, the administration caved under the pressure of Senator Cornyn and, as Josh Rogin writes, committed to the sale of new (not refurbished and old, but new) aircraft for Taiwan. In this case, Obama's lack of resolve under congressional pressure could actually advance U.S. national security interests.

According to Rogin, Cornyn received a letter from White House in return for lifting a hold he had put on Mark Lippert's nomination to become the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian Pacific Affairs. Here are some critical points from the letter:

We recognize that China has 2,300 operational combat aircraft, while our democratic partner Taiwan has only 490. We are committed to assisting Taiwan in addressing the disparity in numbers of aircraft through our work with Taiwan's defense ministry on its development of a comprehensive defense strategy vis-a-vis China.

This work will be a high priority for a new Assistant Secretary of Defense in his dialogue on force transformation with his Taiwan counterparts. The Assistant Secretary, in consultation with the inter-agency and the Congress, will play a lead role as the Administration decides on a near-term course of action on how to address Taiwan's fighter gap, including through the sale to Taiwan of an undetermined number of new U.S.-made fighter aircraft.

Rogin goes on:

The White House does not explicitly promise to sell Taiwan new F-16 fighter jets, as Cornyn wants, promising only to give the matter "serious consideration." But it does pledge an "underdetermined number" of new aircraft.

So the administration recognizes that Taiwan has 490 operational combat aircraft while its rival China has 2,300. Presumably, because of the Congressionally-mandated review of Taiwan's air defense, the administration has known about this "fighter gap" for some time. It could have acted on it at any time. Indeed, Obama decided not to sell new fighter aircraft last fall after a policy review. Has it just now decided that the "fighter gap" is important? What changed?

What changed is a hold by a senator -- pure and simple. Taiwan asked for new fighters long ago (the Bush administration ignored the request). Last fall, the administration informed Congress of an upgrade to old aircraft ignoring the "fighter gap" of which it was well aware.

Obama should be held to his now public commitment. Already allies and others are asking whether the much vaunted "pivot" to Asia is all hat and no cattle. Here is the nonpartisan (and non-American) IISS: "For all the talk of the military rebalancing to Asia, the steps taken towards this in the FY2013 budget are quite modest. The number of troops in Europe is to be cut by 10,000 to about 70,000, while Marines are to be deployed to Australia and LCS to Singapore...the overall amount to be spent on defence is set to fall from $645.7bn in FY2012 to $613.9bn in FY2013." The assessment points to specific "pivot" relevant programs that are taking hits such as F-35s, missile defenses, and attack submarines.

Moreover, most allies haven't a clue how the pivot will manifest itself and what role they should be playing. If a "pivot" means anything, it is at the least keeping security commitments. Now Obama has made one -- helping Taiwan close the "fighter gap." Biden tried to channel TR's "speak softly and carry a big stick" mantra. Just how big a stick Obama wields can be determined after he just spoke loudly about his commitment to Taiwan.

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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About the Author

 

Dan
Blumenthal
  • Dan Blumenthal is the director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and Sino-American relations.  Mr. Blumenthal has both served in and advised the U.S. government on China issues for over a decade.  From 2001 to 2004, he served as senior director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia at the Department of Defense.  Additionally, he served as a commissioner on the congressionally-mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission since 2006-2012, and held the position of vice chairman in 2007.  He has also served on the Academic Advisory Board of the congressional U.S.-China Working Group. Mr. Blumenthal is the co-author of "An Awkward Embrace: The United States and China in the 21st Century" (AEI Press, November 2012).

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    Email: dblumenthal@aei.org
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