The Cable

White House: Taiwan needs new jets to counter China

In a shift of U.S. policy, the White House said Friday that Taiwan does have a legitimate need for new fighter planes to address a growing gap with the Chinese military and pledged to sell Taiwan an "undetermined number" new U.S.-made planes.

The new White House position could spark a new crisis in the U.S.-China relationship on the very same day that blind Chinese Activist Chen Guangcheng is rumored to have fled his house arrest to seek asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner are also slated to visit China May 3 and 4 to hold the fourth round of the U.S. China Economic and Security Dialogue.

The White House policy shift was codified in a letter sent to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) Friday as part of a deal to get the Texas senator to release his hold on the confirmation of Mark Lippert, a close confidant of President Barack Obama whose nomination to become the top Pentagon official for Asia has been held up since October over the issue of selling F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan.

"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 the White House office of legislative affairs, wrote in a letter today to Cornyn.

"This work will be a high priority for a new Assistant Secretary of Defense in his dialogue on force transformation with his Taiwan counterparts. The Assistant Secretary, in consultation with the inter-agency and the Congress, will play a lead role as the Administration decides on a near-term course of action on how to address Taiwan's fighter gap, including through the sale to Taiwan of an undetermined number of new U.S.-made fighter aircraft."

The White House does not explicitly promise to sell Taiwan new F-16 fighter jets, as Cornyn wants, promising only to give the matter "serious consideration." But it does pledge an "underdetermined number" of new aircraft and the White House promised that Lippert would use the U.S.-Taiwan Defense Review Talks to conduct a full review of Taiwan's long-term defense strategy.

"Our decisions will continue to be based on an assessment of Taiwan's needs, taking into account what is needed to support Taiwan's overall defense strategy vis-a-vis China," the letter stated.

Cornyn praised the letter in a statement.

"I commend the Administration for recognizing that our friend and ally Taiwan's air force is woefully undersized and outgunned by Communist China, and their inability to adequately defend themselves poses a threat not just to their own security, but to that of the United States," he said. "I look forward to continuing to work hand-in-hand with the Administration and Taiwan as we move forward in this joint effort to ensure Taiwan has the new American-made fighter jets it needs to defend itself."

F-16 fighter planes are largely manufactured in Cornyn's home state of Texas and assembled by Lockheed Martin of Fort Worth.

Arms sales to Taiwan, especially offensive arms like F-16s, are a major irritant in the U.S.-China relationship, as China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and a core interest. The United States has maintained a balance between arming Taiwan and trying to avoid friction with China over the issue since the Taiwan Relations Act was signed in 1979.

Last October, the Obama administration decided to sell Taiwan upgrade packages for its aging fleet of F-16 A/B model planes but the administration never said whether it would sell Taiwan the newer, more advanced planes, claiming it was still under consideration.

At Lippert's November confirmation hearing, Cornyn pressed the nominee on the issue (watch the video here) and then introduced an amendment to the defense authorization bill that sought to force the administration to sell Taiwan new F-16s. That amendment was voted down in the Senate.

Cornyn then wrote a letter threatening to hold the Lippert nomination unless he gets some satisfaction on the issue.

"I remain disappointed by your de facto denial of Taiwan's request to purchase 66 new F-16 C/D fighter aircraft, and I believe it sends a damaging message to nations in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond that the U.S. is willing to abandon our friends in the face of Communist China's intimidation tactics," Cornyn wrote.

In the administration's Feb. 16 response to Cornyn, acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller wrote, "We believe the F-16 A/B upgrade effectively meets Taiwan's current needs." Today's letter changes that analysis.

The Lippert hold is not the first time Cornyn has used his power to hold nominees to press for selling F-16s to Taiwan. Last July, Cornyn held up the nomination of Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed to make a decision on selling the fighter plane to Taiwan.

Lippert's nomination had also been stalled by an objection by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who wanted details on Lippert's reported feud with former National Security Advisor Jim Jones. Lippert was confirmed by the Senate late Thursday evening.

UPDATE: National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor sent the The Cable the following statement on the sale:

The letter to Senator Cornyn is consistent with our current policy on Taiwan, which has not changed. We take very seriously our commitment to Taiwan’s defense as outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act. Our commitment is reflected in our sales of $12.5 billion in arms to Taiwan in 2010 and 2011. In particular, these sales have made a significant contribution to Taiwan’s air defense capabilities including by upgrading the backbone capability of Taiwan’s air force. We do not comment on future possible foreign military sales unless formal congressional notification has taken place.  We remain committed to our one China policy based on the Three Joint Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act.  The new ASD Mark Lippert will play a central role in working with Taiwan's ministry on its development of a comprehensive defense strategy and a resourcing plan.


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The Cable

Should U.S. call for Assad to go? Republicans can’t decide

The Republican Party appears to be deeply split on whether the United States should call on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, a Senate committee vote revealed today.

The divisions were on display during a one-hour debate Thursday at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), after which the Republican members of the panel remained irreconcilably divided over how aggressively the United States should work for Assad's removal.

Thursday's markup of a resolution condemning the violence in Syria, put forth by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bob Casey (D-PA), was the first real congressional debate over U.S. policy in Syria since protests broke out there more than a year ago. It was a heated debate, and by the time the dust settled, half of the Republicans on the committee joined with the Democrats to insist that Congress call on Assad to step down, overruling the other half of the Republicans on the panel, who argued that such language should be scuttled from the resolution.

Rubio, in a speech Wednesday at the Brookings Institution aimed at burnishing his foreign-policy credentials, explained that he was fighting against a growing isolationist trend in his own party. "I recently joked that today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left," he said.

Little did he know that his next battle with members of his own party on foreign policy would come only a day later.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) opened up Thursday's SFRC business meeting by warning of the dangers of Assad remaining in power.

"The stakes in Syria are very, very high. The prospects of a full-fledged civil war are very real," Kerry said, explaining that he will travel to the region during the next Senate recess, which begins tomorrow. "If Assad were to remain in power ... it would really mark a turning point in this Arab awakening and we would have a lot of difficulties dealing with that for a long time to come."

But as soon as Kerry started considering the Rubio-Casey resolution as introduced, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) objected to the paragraph that "calls upon the President to continue to provide support, including communications equipment to organizations in Syria that are representative of the people of Syria."

Corker wanted to make sure that Congress wasn't endorsing arms sales to the Syrian opposition, so the committee agreed to add the words "non-lethal" before "support." Corker also tried to make the resolution specify that no money would go to the opposition, but that was voted down by all nine committee Democrats and three of the nine committee Republicans: Rubio, Johnny Isaakson (R-GA), and John Barrasso (R-WY).

The real fireworks came when Corker tried to remove the line saying that the Senate "reaffirms that it is the policy of the United States that the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people cannot be realized so long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power and that he must step aside."

"I think it's odd to state as a national policy that we want to see Assad gone," Corker said.

Kerry pointed out that President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have all called publicly for Assad to go, so it already is national policy and the Senate would simply be endorsing that. Kerry offered to take out the phrase "he must step aside."

Ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) objected even to that. "I still feel that we should not include a reference to Assad in the paragraph," he said.

"For us to get into a situation where are making these sorts of judgments seems to be overstepping without really having a fundamental debate," said Lugar "We crept on this before during the Libya situation... and we've never really had a debate. The personalization of this resolution is not a good idea."

Rubio defended his resolution, stating he agreed with the administration. He was backed up by several Democrats, including Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ).

Durbin said that if the Senate passed a resolution weaker than the administration's position, the signal to the world would be that the United States is backing down. "Wouldn't this give some solace to Assad that he might be able to survive and continue?" he asked.

"Many thousands of people have been killed in Russia and China and even in Burma," Lugar responded. "The president could say [Russian President-elect Vladimir] Putin must go, or Chinese leaders, because they are committing crimes in Lhasa all the time. But we are not affirming that... This is a shift in making foreign policy that I am very uncomfortable with."

Kerry tried his best several times to find compromise language that would satisfy both sides, suggesting that the resolution call for a democratic transition decided by the Syrian people -- with the obvious implication that Syria's future would not include Assad.

"It's conceivable that diplomacy might create some transition process." Kerry said, referring to the gradual handover of power by President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. "Who knows?"

Menendez was having none of that argument.

"To somehow leave in vagueness that Assad, despite his slaughter, can somehow find a way to survive, is very difficult to accept," Menendez said. "Otherwise, it undermines the purpose and the power of these resolutions and sends the wrong message to the people struggling and dying."

Ultimately, Kerry gave up and called the vote and the committee voted 12-6 to keep the call for Assad to go in the resolution. Rubio, Isaakson, and Barrasso again joined the Democrats in the vote to scuttle Corker's amendment.

In the final vote to approve the resolution, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) voted in favor by proxy, making the final vote 13-6. Four Republicans voted for the resolution, five against. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) broke ranks with the Democrats and voted against the resolution by proxy.

"The committee is split on Syria but I think you'll find a different result when we get to the floor," Rubio told The Cable in a short interview. "I think there will be much more support for it from Republicans than the committee's vote reflected."

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