Taiwan has abandoned a bid to buy 66 F-16 fighter jets from the US in an attempt to rescue a larger arms package before President George W. Bush leaves the White House, according to national security officials in Taipei.
The decision came as Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of the US Pacific command, confirmed this week for the first time that Washington had frozen arms sales to Taiwan – a drastic departure from the line the US has followed in the past seven years.
Adml Keating said tensions had eased in the Taiwan Strait, and the administration had concluded “that there is no pressing, compelling need for, at this moment, arms sales to Taiwan of the systems that we’re talking about”.
However, Taipei officials said they believed that the US had temporarily put off arms sales in order to secure Beijing’s co-operation in tackling trouble in Iran and North Korea. They claimed there was disagreement among Mr Bush’s national security staff and within the US State Department.
Taiwanese officials said they were in 11th-hour consultations with US counterparts to end Washington’s freeze. “We hope that once the Olympics are over and things are less politically sensitive for Beijing, things can start moving again. Otherwise it will be too late to get these sales back on track under the current administration,” said a senior Taiwan security official.
The official said Taipei was no longer pursuing a previous request to acquire the F-16s, worth $5bn (€3.2bn, £2.5bn),as there now seemed no chance of success. “We are concentrating on the more basic, less controversial stuff right now,” he said.
Three months after taking office in 2001, Mr Bush gave approval in principle for a $11bn package of diesel-electric submarines, anti-submarine aircraft, and Patriot surface-to-air missiles. But Taiwan’s legislature repeatedly failed to approve the necessary funds, despite lobbying from US officials who said the military balance in the Taiwan Strait was tilting in Beijing’s favour.
The nationalist Kuomintang party, which had blocked approval, won Taiwan’s presidency and strengthened its control of the legislature this year and resumed a quasi-diplomatic dialogue with Beijing that had long been suspended.
Taipei is now concerned that Washington may have created a precedent that could prove difficult to reverse since the Communist-ruled mainland has long demanded the US phase out its arms sales to the island.
Beijing officials said this week that the sale freeze had been adopted “in deference to China’s demand”, pointing to a 1982 joint communique under which the US pledged to reduce weapons sales to Taiwan gradually.
The Taipei security official said: “We are reminding the US of its obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act.” That US law requires Washington to help Taiwan secure sufficient capabilities to defend itself against Beijing, which claims sovereignty over the self-ruled island.