The Cable

The Obama administration’s bad week on Taiwan

The White House's unannounced decision not to sell Taiwan new fighter planes, along with reports that the administration is taking sides in Taiwan's domestic elections, have angered its critics while alienating would-be allies.

State Department officials briefed a small, select group of Senate staffers today on their decision to sell Taiwan a new package of weapons. According to Thursday's report in the Washington Times, which congressional sources later confirmed as the administration's decision, the administration has decided to sell Taiwan upgrade packages for their aging fleet of F-16 A/B fighters, but not the new F-16 C/D models that the Taiwanese had been requesting.

The officials briefed only selected staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The briefing was deemed "classified" (so leaking about it would be illegal) and was held in a secure room in the basement of the Senate Visitors Center. Aides to senators on the SFRC who wanted to attend were not permitted. They were told there might be another briefing for them next week.

Taiwan arms sales are one of the most sensitive foreign policy issues for the Obama administration, due to the direct impact on U.S.-China relations. The announcement of the upgrade package and the rejection of new fighter sales had been expected for weeks. But congressional offices are so fed up with the administration's reluctance to share information about its Taiwan policy that they are going ahead with their opposition even before any arms sales announcements are made public.

"If the reports are true, today's capitulation to Communist China by the Obama Administration marks a sad day in American foreign policy, and it represents a slap in the face to a strong ally and long time friend," Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said in a Friday statement. "This sale would have been a win-win, bolstering the national security of two democratic nations and supporting jobs for an American workforce that desperately needs them."

Cornyn is planning to move ahead with the bill he cosponsored with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), that seeks to compel the administration to sell Taiwan the new C/D model planes. Meanwhile, House Foreign Relations Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) is planning to move forward with her new bill on Taiwan policy, which covers several aspects of the U.S. approach to Taiwan that Congress feels the administration is fumbling, including inviting Taiwanese officials for high-level visits and increasing trade relations with the island.

When the administration last sold Taiwan arms in January 2010, the Chinese cut off military-to-military ties for more than a year. One senior aide to a Senate GOP committee member told The Cable that if the administration is trying to strike a compromise between supporting Taiwan and not angering China, they are sure to fail on both counts.

"You split the baby and everybody's unhappy, and the administration is going to end up driving more Democrats on to the Cornyn-Menendez bill than Republicans," the aide said. The upgrade package that the administration is planning to offer for Taiwan's old planes, the aide continued, is like putting "lipstick on a pig."

Reporters at today's State Department press briefing were puzzled that, amid a flurry of reports about the sale and on the same day some staffers were getting briefed, the administration still had nothing to say on the topic.

"I have nothing to announce," said spokesman Mark Toner. "I would just say, if a sale is notified, that it'll appear on the Defense Security Cooperation Agency website."

Meanwhile, the administration got caught this week in a separate scandal related to Taiwan. An unnamed U.S. government official signaled to the Financial Times that the United States did not want to see Taiwanese opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen win January's presidential election because it could raise tensions with China.

"She left us with distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-Strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years," the U.S. official told FT. Tsai's opponent Ma Ying-Jeou has already used the quote to attack the candidate.

Tsai had been in Washington all week meeting with administration officials and outside experts. One of the experts she met with, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Randy Schriver, told The Cable that the criticism of Tsai was a bad breach of protocol.

"I understand that the Obama administration assured Dr. Tsai this week at high levels that the U.S. will remain neutral in Taiwan's election," he said. "I hope the Obama administration is trying to identify the unnamed official from the story and will reprimand that person for publicly contradicting so many of their own senior officials who spoke on the topic this week."

Toner addressed the Tsai controversy this week. "I can just assure you that we strongly support Taiwan's democracy and the will of the Taiwanese people to choose their leaders in the upcoming election. Our only interest is in a free, fair, and open presidential elections," he said. "We don't take any sides."  

For those on Capitol Hill who are already critical of the Obama administration's Taiwan policy, the leak is just one more example that the White House views Taiwan though the lens of its policy toward Beijing.

"It is embarrassing, but perhaps not surprising, that this administration would attempt to undermine Dr. Tsai's candidacy in such a way," said another senior Senate GOP staffer. "Instead of catering to the whims of the PRC, the administration should stay neutral, and then stand back and let the voters on Taiwan determine for themselves who their leaders should be and what their relationship with the mainland will look like."

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