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Sunday, April 3, 2011

US delaying F-16 upgrade, report says

By William Lowther and Shih Hsiu-chuan / Staff Reporters in WASHINGTON and TAIPEI

There is growing concern in Washington that the US State Department is withholding approval of Taiwan’s request to upgrade its aging fleet of F-16 fighter planes because some top officials do not want to upset China.

According to insiders, outgoing US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg is one of those directly involved in refusing to give final approval.

Steinberg announced earlier this week that he was leaving the government to take a job in academia.

However, he and others are believed to have convinced the White House that Beijing would immediately break off US-China military relations if the multibillion-dollar upgrade package goes ahead.

To avoid Congressional pressure, the US State Department is also said to be delaying a report to Capitol Hill on Taiwan’s airpower that is more than a year late.

The report, approved by the Pentagon, is said to argue that Taiwan’s air force is in desperate need of the upgrades.

News of the situation leaked on Thursday when the Washington Times published an article by security reporter Bill Gertz.

It said that the delay of the Taiwan airpower report was prompting at least one unnamed senator to threaten the nomination of Mark Lippert — a personal friend of US President Barack Obama — as the new assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs.

According to the Washington Times, Lippert’s nomination may not be approved by the Senate until the report on Taiwan’s airpower is submitted to Congress.

That report is expected to in turn trigger Congressional support for the US$4 billion F-16 upgrades, which include new electronics, engines and missiles.

Taiwan has 145 of the US-made F-16 fighters.

The Obama administration has said in the past that as a matter of policy, pressure from China would not be allowed to influence decisions on arms sales to Taiwan.

Beijing has twice cut off military relations with the Pentagon — most recently in January last year — over US arms sales to Taiwan.

The Washington Times said: “The Obama administration and Defense Secretary Robert M Gates have made improving military relations with China a key element of its military diplomacy. China’s leaders, according to defense officials, have exploited that desire by trying to hold military exchanges hostage and forcing an end of arms sales.”

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner denied that the report on Taiwan’s airpower and the F-16 upgrade sale are being delayed.

He said: “Ever since the Taiwan Relations Act was passed, the entire interagency has been and continues to be involved in the ongoing process to evaluate Taiwan’s defense needs, which informs the US government’s decisions on foreign military sales to Taiwan.”

In Taipei, when asked by press for comment on the information that the arms package for Taiwan to upgrade its F-16A/B fighter jets has been delayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs Timothy Yang (楊進添) said yesterday that the ministry was not aware of the reported delay.

“The related US administrative agencies, the Pentagon, State Department, National Security Council and Congress, are still in the process of evaluating the case. I don’t think it was [held up],” Yang said.

Yang said the US has been clear that Taiwan needs to replace its aging air force and that cross-strait rapprochement should be put in the context of Taiwan having better relations with its traditional friends, the US and Japan.

“I have been saying that we wanted to avoid every possibility of military conflict in the Strait by means of negotiation. During the negotiations, Taiwan needs lots of support from our traditional friends so that we do not enter the negotiations from a weak position and to give the Taiwanese confidence,” Yang said.

The US could support the peaceful development of cross-strait relations by selling Taiwan sufficient weapons for defense, he added.

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