Taiwan’s 66 F-16 C/Ds: the Ohio and Florida problem

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Wendell Minnick’s Defense News story that a US delegation visited Taiwanto tell Taipeithat the deal for 66 F-16 C/Ds is dead has created a stir in the region’sdefence circles. Officials from both the USand Taiwanrushed to deny the report. Nonetheless, virtually every pundit, journalist,official, and industry executive I’ve spoken to privately feels that Taiwan won’t get new F-16 C/Ds. Washington’s fearof angering Chinais simply to great.

Hilary Clinton is due to make her recommendation on the saleon 1 October, China‘snational day. Given that China’s reserves supply a good portion of Washington’sbudget these days, her suggestion is all but a forgone conclusion: China is ofinfinite importance, so lets keep the peace, and suggest only that Taiwan’s 152F-16 A/Bs be upgraded. One source told me that Washingtonand Beijing arelike “two scorpions in abottle.” They have a deep symbiotic relationship, but distrust is high on thesecurity front.

In anycase, the potential Taiwansale comes at a time when, after over thirty years of production, the F-16 isnearing the end of its production run. On 3 August Flightglobal reported thatLockheed Martin will  begin to shut down or experience”significant gaps” on the line – unless the company secures new orders for thefighter by the end of 2011.

A 66-aircraft F-16 C/D order would be great news for the F-16 line. Manna fromHeaven. Media reports suggest 16,000 F-16 related jobs are at stake, with anumber of these in the key battleground states of Ohioand Florida.If Obama is steadfast about denying Taiwan F-16 C/Ds, it would be easy work forthe Republicans to take a populist line during the 2012 electoral campaign. They could accuse the Democrats of favoring Chineseinterests over American jobs. The could pin him for favoring acommunist dictatorship over a vibrant democratic ally in an important region.

My prediction: Clintonwill suggest the F-16 C/D sale not go through. Next year, however, theRepublicans will make Taiwan‘sF-16s an election issue. American voters are unlikely to appreciate the nuances of America‘sfinancial problems, especially where jobs and national prestige are concerned. China has done itself no favors browbeating the USabout its debt addiction. Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter with the slogan ‘MakeAmerica Strong Again.’ Taiwancould see some new airplanes yet.  

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