All the ingredients are there for a replay of history: Republicans, Democrats, China, Taiwan, F-16 fighter jets and 5,800 jobs at the U.S. Air Force Plant 4 in Fort Worth, Texas.
After learning a bitter lesson in 1992, this time Beijing wants to win, and the Bush administration seems inclined to let it. Whether Congress will go along is another matter.
In 1992, the Pentagon had confirmed Taiwan's need for new F-16 fighters to defend itself from China's expanding fleet of Russian Su-27s, but the State Department delayed an interagency consensus on any fighter sale for fear of offending Beijing.
On July 29, 1992, then-U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards, both Democrats, blamed then-President George H.W. Bush, running for re-election, for the blocked sale of 150 Texas-made F-16s to Taiwan.
"I don't know what deals have been made between George Bush and Communist China," Richards seethed, "but when it means the loss of 5,800 workers by the end of 1994 in Fort Worth, Texas, it's time to wake up and smell the coffee."
Actually, the F-16 program was a $6 billion deal which, in those days, could be calculated to fund 120,000 man-years in the U.S. economy.
Some pundits pointed out that selling high-performance fighters to Taiwan would anger Beijing, to which Bentsen sourly responded, "Well, after all, what can Beijing do? Threaten to terminate its $20 billion-a-year trade surplus with us?"
Bush was quickly persuaded by the Bentsen-Richards' argument despite State Department protests. He announced a "new look" at the decision the very next day.
The rest is history -- one that seems to be repeating itself.
Now, as in 1992, there is unanimity among Pentagon experts (though their public position is "it has not yet been decided") that Taiwan urgently needs to replace at least 66 ancient F-5E/F fighters left over from the 1970s with F-16 Block 52s. The Pentagon publicly acknowledges that "China's expansion of missile and other military forces opposite Taiwan has continued unabated, with the balance of forces shifting in the mainland's favor."
Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, which had been notoriously unhappy with big-ticket weapon buys from the United States, seems finally to have gotten the message. In June, it passed an arms procurement budget that included an up-front payment of $450 million for new F-16s.
Political bickering in Taiwan's legislature, however, resulted in a sullen compromise that made the entire $4 billion multiyear F-16 procurement conditional on the United States providing price-and-availability data by Oct. 31. Otherwise, the $4 billion turns into a pumpkin that must await a new legislature to review it sometime next year.
Lockheed Martin, which makes the F-16s, must be ecstatic because the F-16 production line in Fort Worth is scheduled to shut down by the end of 2009.
But it's déjà vu all over again.
President George W. Bush's national security aides know full well that if they let the Taiwan legislature's Oct. 31 deadline pass, getting it to reappropriate the funds will be a Sisyphean ordeal. But they are secretly content, because it won't antagonize China. Whether Bush himself understands this is doubtful.
Congress, on the other hand, is alarmed at White House inaction. On Sept. 26, Tom Lantos, D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, joined ranking Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and 20 other committee members, to co-sponsor a resolution calling on Bush to comply with the Taiwan Relations Act. Congressional aides are concerned that by giving China a veto over Taiwan's F-16s, the Bush administration is setting a disturbing precedent.
Blocking the F-16s is not bad just for Taiwan. The proposed $3 billion-to-$4 billion program for 66 Taiwan F-16s would directly fund about 44,000 man-years at the Fort Worth plant and with subcontractors around the country. But a new Bush administration is not interested.
When Taiwan, by delivering a "Letter of Request" to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, offered to thrust a cashier's check for $450 million into U.S. government escrow accounts two months ago, the State Department stepped in, as it did in 1992, and blocked it.
On Sept. 11, when asked about the State Department's action, Thomas Christensen, deputy assistant secretary of state, insisted "no decision had been made" because "there is no F-16 sale," apparently implying that because the United States doesn't have a formal LOR, no formal decision need be made.
As in 1992, the current Bush administration is anxious about offending China. In 2007, the State Department frets that China is "helping" with the North Korean nuclear talks; "helping" keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons; "helping" Sudan deal with its genocide problem; "helping" urge Burmese generals not to shoot protesters in Rangoon.
Many key members of Congress, on the other hand, are skeptical of China's help. Moreover, Congress generally is quite irritated when any administration presumes to block arms sales to Taiwan because of Chinese complaints, something the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act forbids.
Only on Sept. 12 did the State Department finally permit the Pentagon to notify a $2.2 billion contract for Standard SM-2 air defense missiles and P-3 Orion submarine-hunter aircraft to Congress after three months in limbo.
As one senior Pentagon official complained privately, if the State Department allows the U.S.-China calendar to dictate timing, then "it's never a 'good time' to notify Taiwan arms sales."
One would hope the president would do the right thing and sell Taiwan the planes. But if he needs prodding, there are members of the Texas delegation eager to oblige. This may be a difficult call for the administration, but 44,000 man-years of continued employment at stake in the Dallas-Fort Worth area make it a political no-brainer.
John J. Tkacik Jr., a senior fellow atthe Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Taipei in the U.S. Foreign Service.
First appeared in DefenseNews