Wendell Minnick reported in Defense News on Wednesday that “Taiwan has suspended an effort to convince the U.S. government to release a squadron of F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighter jets to cover the downtime of one F-16A/B squadron undergoing lengthy upgrades.” While such a move is not entirely unexpected (as Taiwan has waited patiently for an answer regarding its request for a total of 66 block C/D's since 2007), if true it could potentially damage Taiwan's standing with one of its most staunch supporters: The United States Congress. While Taiwan has looked to stop asking for C/D's to cover the offline time of A/B squadron's that are being upgraded, the request was not ever likely to be fulfilled, as such a move would have crossed one of China's self-imposed "red lines" in terms of weapon sales to Taiwan. Additionally, Taiwan asking for the "temporary use" of C/D's while its existing fleet of A/B's were being upgraded was a crafty request, but one that it likely did not have much hope of being fulfilled. While Taiwan still states that it does desire its full request of C/D fighters, it has not made an official request to the United States to fulfill the request since 2007. Many members of Congress have been pressing the State Department and both the Bush and Obama White House to approve the request with a higher sense of urgency than even Taiwanese government officials have done publicly in the past 6 years.
The Taiwan-United States relationship is one of the few issues in Congress that has consistently maintained bi-partisan support, as its members have by and large attempted to force reluctant Presidential Administrations (and often State Department officials) to adhere to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 that ensures “...the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” Although the current Obama Administration (and previous Bush Administration) did not approve the sale of the F-16 C/D to Taiwan, pressure was being applied by Congress to do so.
Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) wrote a series of letters to the White House, asking that it send Taiwan's F-16 purchase request to Congress for ratification. In April of 2012, there was a marked change of tone from previous White House responses:
"We are mindful of and share your concerns about Taiwan's growing shortfall in fighter aircraft as the F-5s are retired from service and notwithstanding the upgrade of the F-16A/Bs. We recognize that China has 2,300 operational combat aircraft, while our democratic partner Taiwan has only 490. We are committed to assisting Taiwan in addressing the disparity in numbers of aircraft through our work with Taiwan's defense ministry on its development of a comprehensive defense strategy vis-a-vis China," --Robert Nabors, Director of White House Legislative Affairs
Additionally, recent bills in the U.S. Congress have addressed the F-16 C/D issue. The Taiwan Policy Act of 2011 (HR 2918), and The Taiwan Policy Act of 2013 (HR 419) both included language that would have placed a great deal of pressure on the Obama Administration to accept Taiwan's Letter of Request (LoR), and allow Congress to vote on the requested sale; a sale that would likely be passed if brought to a vote in the House and Senate. Such a decision by the Ma Administration to fore go the F-16 request, while members of Congress have been spending considerable political capital to push the issue in both the Legislative and Executive branches of American government, could cause many long time supporters of Taiwan in Congress to question that countries' level of national security commitment.
While Taiwan's recent Quadrennial Defense Review stated that the Ministry of National Defense will look to develop 4th generation indigenous fighter aircraft in place of the F-16 C/D fighters, such a proposal is a long-term goal, and does not fill Taiwan's immediate air force needs (as a sizable portion of its fleet are aging F-5 aircraft that are slated to be retired within two years). Additionally, Taiwan has stated its desire to not only develop its own 4th generation fighter; but to acquire a modern submarine fleet as well. Such platforms will take years, if not decades to acquire, and will take billions to secure---an amount that Taipei has not recently been willing to spend.
This recent development, coinciding with Taiwan's low annual defense budget of nearly 2.2% (that does not reach close to President Ma's pre-2008 campaign goal of at least 3.0%), will likely be a cause of concern among members of Congress until the current administration shows a renewed commitment to Taiwan's national defense.