TAIPEI, Taiwan >> A U.S. decision not to sell Taiwan new F-16 fighter jets is being seen by many U.S. allies in Asia as a sign of China’s growing clout.
The pre-eminent military power in East Asia for a half-century, the U.S. has explicitly and implicitly provided a security umbrella for countries from Singapore to Japan, helping to keep the peace that has fostered stunning economic growth.
While few of these allies believe the U.S. is lessening its commitment to the region, they still see Washington’s refusal to make the F-16 sale — privately confirmed by congressional aides Sunday and then made public Wednesday — as showing a new deference to Chinese interests.
China is a "big factor … that can’t be discounted," Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told The Associated Press. "All things are always considered in a decision and China is a world player now."
The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, publicly confirmed in New York on Wednesday that the Obama administration will upgrade Taiwan’s existing fleet of F-16s, postponing for now the sale of new models that Taipei sought. The decision brought a swift, angry denunciation from Beijing, where Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun summoned U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke to warn that exchanges between the militaries, security cooperation and overall ties will suffer.
After reducing its footprint in East Asia during the administration of President George W. Bush, the U.S. began pushing back in last year. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered strong support to Asian allies in response to their unease about a more assertive Chinese naval posture in the South China Sea, and the U.S. military conducted high-profile drills with Japan and South Korea.
But doubts about American staying power in the region persist, and Washington’s refusal to sell the new F-16s to Taiwan could serve to deepen them.
Admittedly, Taiwan is not a typical case when it comes to security assistance from the U.S. and most other countries. Claims by the self-governing island to sovereignty remain much in doubt, undermined by China’s increasingly accepted counterclaim that the island of 23 million people constitutes an integral part of Chinese territory 62 years after the two sides split amid civil war.
But Taiwan’s defense ties with the United States still run deep.
It hosted U.S. troops for decades under the terms of a security pact that lapsed only after the U.S. shifted its recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. And since then, Washington has remained bound by a Congressional mandate to sell the island weapons to help defend itself against the attack that China threatens if Taipei moves to make its de facto independence permanent.
The complexity of this relationship helps explains the intense Washington reaction that was engendered by the Obama administration’s decision on the fighter planes, which denied Taiwan the 66 new F-16 C/Ds it long coveted, while permitting it a series of upgrades on its existing fleet of F-16 A/Bs.
Supporters of the decision regarded it as a Solomonic compromise, taking account of Taiwan’s defense needs — particularly its growing air power gap with China — while also safeguarding the integrity of America’s increasingly important relationship with Beijing.
But critics blasted the decision as a sellout of a democratic bastion and long-standing security partner, and a move that could even rattle Asian partners’ confidence in U.S. commitments.
Even before news of the decision became final, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, where the Lockheed Martin plant that would have built the new F-16s is located, described it as a slap in the face to a strong ally, and Howard Berman, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, called it a "half-measure."
In Asia, it is seen as yet another example of China’s growing military and economic power.
The Philippines’ Gazmin saw the move as primarily the result of Washington’s limited options in the face of China’s significant holdings of American Treasuries, and the threat that poses to America’s fiscal stability.
"It has a large debt and if China will try to apply pressure, the U.S. can end up in trouble," he said. "The U.S. has to temper its relations with Taiwan for China."
But Gazmin rejected the notion that Washington’s decision could point to an eventual unwinding of its long-standing security ties with the Philippines, which include close cooperation in fighting Muslim insurgents in the southern part of the country.
"We have a separate, special relationship with the U.S. that’s different from its relations with Taiwan," he said. "The U.S. ties with Taiwan (are) different from ours and other countries, the dynamics are different."
China expert Lee Chang-hyung of Seoul’s government-affiliated Korea Institute for Defense Analyses also saw the U.S. decision to deny Taiwan new F-16s as reflecting China’s economic leverage in Washington.
"If it sells the fighter jets to Taiwan, it could sustain some big economic damage," he said. "I think the United States has taken that factor into account."
Lee said China’s meteoric rise — underlined by its rapidly expanding military and its lightning economic growth — has prompted some South Koreans to conclude that Seoul’s best interests lie in downgrading its decades-old security alliance with the United States in favor of closer ties with Beijing.
But he rejected that approach, in part because he believes China is still dozens of years away from catching up with the U.S. militarily.
"We have to maintain and bolster the alliance with the United States — which is far away from us — while expanding and improving exchanges with China — which is close to us," he said.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.