Two-thirds of National Journal’s National Security Insiders agreed with the Obama administration’s decision to upgrade Taiwan’s existing fleet of F-16 jets, rather than sell the island the new package of late-model F-16 aircraft that Taipei, and many in Congress, had requested. Separately, the pool of national-security and foreign-policy experts also said the expected return of Vladimir Putin to Russia’s presidency would not pose a significant obstacle to the “reset” in relations the U.S. has pursued with Moscow.
The administration notified Congress of a $5.85 billion arms package in late September primarily to retrofit 145 of Taiwan’s F-16 A/B fighter jets with radar, weapons and structural upgrades—opting not to sell the island 66 new F-16 C/D aircraft. The Insiders, stressing the importance of the administration’s military and economic relationship with China, which considers the island a renegade province, said Washington needs to walk the fine line between meeting its commitment to Taiwan’s security without severely inflaming tensions with Beijing.
“The cost to our relationship with China of new F-16s far exceeds the value of new F-16s to Taiwan,” one Insider said.
Beijing cut off most of its military-to-military contacts with the U.S. last year when the Obama administration signed off on the sale of $6.4 billion of military equipment to Taiwan. The U.S. has since been busily working to repair the frayed defense ties.
“America should continue to support democratic rule and U.S. investment in Taiwan, but it will no longer go to war with China in the event of an assault on Taiwan,” one Insider said. “America has too much at stake in China—it holds some $1.2 trillion in U.S. Treasury securities, and trade with China in 2010 exceeded $400 billion. Moreover, while U.S. naval and air forces are stronger than China's, our ability project power in the straits between China and Taiwan faces limits, including antiship cruise missiles which could threaten U.S. Navy ships.”
Chinese officials, urging the U.S. to reconsider the arms upgrade package, have already indicated that the sale would disrupt military exchanges with the U.S.
The 33 percent of Insiders who blasted the administration’s decision to hold off on selling the full package insisted that the U.S. is ceding to Chinese priorities—and setting itself up for an even stickier situation when Taiwan requests more weapons. “China will interpret the administration's decision as a sign of irresolution, and proof that they can bully the U.S. on matters relating to Taiwan,” one Insider said. "But they will nevertheless profess to be displeased by what the administration agreed to do with Taiwan, so in the end, the U.S. will face much of the same reaction that it would have faced had the administration not been irresolute."
The U.S. has maintained that the option to sell the full fleet of F-16 jets to upgrade Taiwan’s aging air force is not off the table. Washington must find a way to offer Taiwan security improvements in a “more routine and ongoing way,” said one Insider who supported the upgrade package. “When the package is too big, we always lose our nerve.”
Separately, Insiders said the announcement by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, President Obama's "reset" partner in the Kremlin, that he would step aside next March to allow Vladimir Putin to return to the presidency was unsurprising. Forty-four percent said the change would only somewhat complicate the U.S. efforts to reconcile with its onetime Cold War foe. This is mainly because, as one Insider said, "the reset never reset so [it will have] only somewhat of an impact."
While the Obama administration has insisted that it would move forward with its efforts to reset relations with Russia regardless of who becomes president, some Insiders warned that Putin would attempt to assert a "personal role as the 'counterweight' to growing Chinese influence at the expense of the U.S." Others were troubled that "Putin's instincts are anti-Western and coercive toward neighbors."
Still, they acknowledged the administration "surely" took into account this very likely possibility when pursuing reconciliation. "Putin's return is hardly news. The surprise it that anyone ever considered a serious transfer of power to Medvedev might occur. Some senior [intelligence community] analysts actually thought this might occur back in 2008."
"Putin is not the administration's favorite," one Insider said. But the news isn't all bad, the Insider continued: "He is someone that the U.S. can do business with. Recall that he was among the first, if not the first, to voice support for the U.S. after 9/11."
The 30 percent of Insiders who said the expected return will hardly complicate the pursuit of a reset of relations were split on their reasons why. Several said this is because Putin "has been in control behind the scenes all along" and "reclaiming the title won't change much."
Others put the responsibility on the administration to react to the development. "It should [complicate the reset], because Putin will be more aggressive than Medvedev, but the administration will keep turning the other cheek until something truly outrageous occurs."
1. Did the Obama administration make the right decision to update Taiwan's existing fleet of fighter jets, instead of selling it the new F-16s it was requesting?
- Yes 67%
- No 33%
"Since the option still exists to provide new F-16s as well as the upgrades, the decision was acceptable at this time."
"Taiwan's military is more symbolic than war-fighting-capable against overwhelming [People's Liberation Army] strength. Type of F-16 is irrelevant."
"There is no reason to deliberately alienate China."
"We further cede our forward position to China in dominating the eastern rim of the Pacific."
"We should not let Beijing believe that they have cowed us. George H.W. Bush was a strong proponent of good relations with China, yet he sold F-16s to Taiwan. No lasting damage was done. What is being proposed is a messy compromise that will satisfy no one."
"Administration would be wise to toughen up on China. They look very weak."
"[China] will nevertheless profess to be displeased by what the Administration agreed to do with Taiwan, so in the end, the U.S. will face much of the same reaction that it would have faced had the Administration not been irresolute."
2. How much will the expected return of Vladimir Putin to Russia’s presidency complicate the “reset” in relations that the Obama administration has pursued with Moscow?
- Very much 26%
- Somewhat 44%
- Hardly at all 30%
"The reset has brought nothing but regret. First, we had to gut our strategic nuclear systems to give Russians parity. We were told this is OK, because we have conventional forces and missile defense. Now we have to gut conventional defense and missile defense for tactical nuclear deal."
"In many ways it is a genuine reset—back to where it started—no change whatsoever—whether as [prime minister] or president, Putin has and will continue to pull all the strings."
"Putin will very much complicate, but he was the Edgar Bergen behind Medevedev anyhow."
"Of course, it was always the height of hubris for the Administration to think that its policies could affect the Putin-Medvedev dynamic in Russia. This is final proof that the 'reset' was oversold."
"It need not be bad; but definitely must be closely paid attention to."
"Putin's instincts are anti-Western and coercive toward neighbors. Last April, the Russian prime minister likened the U.N. resolution on protecting civilians in Libya to 'a medieval call for a crusade.' He has warned that Russia will deploy new 'strike forces' absent a deal with NATO on missile defense. Putin hints that South Ossetia (a separatist region in Georgia) might join Russia, and last month he called a merger of Belarus with Russia “possible and very desirable.” Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008 led to a temporary nosedive in relations with the West. Renewed aggression against neighbors remains the biggest potential threat to relations with the West. Russia needs Western investment to exploit Arctic and other hard-to-access energy reserves, and this might be an effective restraint. If not, Putin could err again and reset would take an even deeper dive."
"Any serious student of Russia would have considered that highly doubtful. Putin's return will create some complications in U.S.-Russian Federation relationships but these can be managed. The Russian Federation is an authoritarian regime and democracy is still a distant goal."
"The reset never reset so only somewhat of an impact."
"Putin is not the administration's favorite. But he is someone that the U.S. can do business with. Recall that he was among the first, if not the first, to voice support for the U.S. after 9/11."
Hardly at all
"He is a reasonable man and has been in control behind the scenes all along."
"He never really left."
"It should [complicate the reset], because Putin will be more aggressive than Medvedev, but the administration will keep turning the other cheek until something truly outrageous occurs."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign-policy experts. They include:
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Kit Bond, Paula Broadwell, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Richard Danzig, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Jacques Gansler, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Donald Kerrick, Lawrence Korb, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, James Lindsay, Trent Lott, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Kevin Nealer, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Dov Zakheim.
This article appears in the October 3, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.