WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Tuesday urged the Bush administration to proceed with a $4 billion sale of F-16s to Taiwan despite concerns that the deal could antagonize China.
"The reality is that any major U.S. sale at any time will be vehemently objected to by the Chinese communist regime," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. "Should that affect our commitment to stability in the Taiwan Strait?"
The nonbinding resolution, approved on a voice vote with little discussion, underscores the U.S. commitment to help Taiwan defend itself under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.
Taiwan's parliament has allocated a $488 million down payment toward 66 F-16 C/D fighters. F-16 production is expected to end early in the next decade, but the fighter jet's maker, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., hopes to extend the line a few years longer with foreign sales.
The Bush administration balked at proceeding with the sale after Taiwan made overtures toward joining the United Nations, which China interprets as a hostile move by the island to reassert its independence from the mainland. Administration officials are fearful that Taiwan's independence movement could provoke an invasion from China.
"The Bush administration needs another crisis like it needs a hole in the head," said Michael Swaine, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It wants to avoid having this issue disintegrate into a confrontation with the Chinese."
Supporters of the sale point out that the $488 million commitment to begin buying the warplanes will expire Oct. 31 unless the Bush administration provides data on price and availability. The Taiwanese Defense Administration has budgeted another $764 million as a further installment on the purchase.
Taiwan has 150 older-model F-16s and wants the newer versions to replace aging F-5s. At least 17 F-5s have crashed over the past 10 years.
Ros-Lehtinen, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chief sponsor of the resolution, said "Taiwan's air force is literally falling from the sky" while China, emerging as the powerhouse of the Western Pacific, continues to upgrade its air force and navy.
The resolution reflected continuing strong support among conservative Republicans for Taiwan's government, which was established after the communist takeover of mainland China in 1949. The United States re-established diplomatic relations with China in the 1970s and no longer recognizes Taiwan as an independent state.
"The sale of any sophisticated weapon system to Taiwan raises delicate political concerns because China hates them," said Loren Thompson, a military expert with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "The counter-argument is that without advanced planes like the F-16, Taiwan could not defend itself against a Chinese invasion."