Over the last decade, mainland China has steadily widened its military advantage over Taiwan. While Beijing has upgraded the quality and quantity of its armed forces, Taipei has not added substantial new weaponry despite attempts to produce its own military equipment. Taiwan's lack of comprehensive modernization stems in large part from the difficulty of finding countries willing to risk Beijing's ire by selling weapons to Taipei.
The steady decline in the quality and quantity of the Taiwanese air force is of particular concern to Taipei. Mainland China fields thousands of fighter aircraft, including more than 300 aircraft based on the Su-27/30 platform. Meanwhile, Taiwan possesses just more than 300 combat-ready fighters, several of which suffer from significant maintenance issues. Taiwan's overall level of military development came into question when less than 70 percent of missiles hit their targets during a missile drill in January 2011.
Unfortunately for Taiwan, acquiring new equipment such as combat aircraft has proved difficult. For political reasons, many countries have been unwilling to sell Taipei critical weapons. Even the United States, the country most likely to sell equipment to Taiwan, has balked on transactions such as the sale of F-16 Block 50/52 aircraft, even though it sells them widely to countries like Morocco and Poland.
Arms Acquisition Breakthroughs
Since 2007, the Taiwanese have made some progress in arranging arms sales, particularly from the United States. Although hardly enough to change the military balance of power between Taiwan and the mainland, these acquisitions have helped Taipei modernize its armed forces. For instance, Taipei purchased a number of air- and submarine-launched Harpoon anti-ship missiles in 2008 from the United States. On March 13, 2009, Lockheed Martin Corp. won a contract to refurbish 12 P-3C Orion aircraft. And in 2010, the United States agreed to sell $6.4 billion worth of weaponry to Taiwan, including Patriot missile batteries, UH-60 helicopters and command-and-control systems. Though China condemned the sale, Beijing's rhetoric soon softened, largely because the United States did not sell any game-changing weapons.
In the last decade Taipei has sought to purchase new combat aircraft to maintain a semblance of keeping up with the mainland's strengthening air forces. Arguably the most critical deal occurred in September 2011, when the United States decided to upgrade Taiwan's F-16A/B models with the new ASEA radar, Link-16, and to arm them with advanced munitions such as the AIM-9X. Congress set a ceiling of $5.85 billion on the package. The Taiwanese are reviewing the U.S. letter of acceptance and deciding which upgrades to include, with the final deal believed to be worth $3.7 billion.
Upgrading its F-16s was not Taipei's first choice. Instead, the Taiwanese have pushed since 2006 to buy 66 new F-16C/D aircraft, but they have been unable to gain traction on the deal. Washington deems refurbishing the older Taiwanese F-16s as less likely to seriously disrupt U.S.-Chinese relations.
Washington breathed new life into Taiwan's efforts to buy 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters when it acknowledged Taiwan's need for new jets in an April 27 letter to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. One of Taiwan's allies in Congress, Cornyn has blocked the nomination of Mark Lippert as assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs until progress is made on the sale of new equipment and weaponry to Taiwan.
Though Taipei has made considerable progress in securing these recent arms transfers, it still faces a major hurdle in attempting to fund the weapons purchases.
Once a rapidly growing "Asian tiger," Taiwan in the early 2000s entered a phase of reduced economic expansion, with gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaging just 3-5 percent per year. This represented a sharp decline from previous high growth rates largely maintained since the 1980s. Global financial turmoil since 2008 has hit particularly hard, decreasing exports that once drove considerable economic growth. Disappointing economic prospects and rising unemployment are forcing the government to reorient its budget in order to spur economic growth.
Against this economic backdrop, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou is seeking to uphold his campaign promise of holding Taiwan's defense budget at 3 percent of GDP. Since Ma came into power, the defense budget has never reached the 3 percent goal — in fact it has declined from 2.85 percent in 2007 to 2.13 percent in 2012. Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense already is struggling to pay for $13 billion in military hardware released by the United States since 2008. The island also is implementing a costly force structure realignment and moving from conscription to an all-volunteer system with a planned completion in 2014.
Given all these constraints, Taiwan will struggle to afford both an upgrade to its older F-16s and the purchase of new ones. Indeed, reports indicate that Taiwan might delay signing the letter of agreement with the U.S. government for the upgrade of its existing F-16 fleet in hopes that the sale of new F-16s will take place. Taiwan already has reduced the number of enhancements it asked for in the F-16 A/B upgrade, pushing the $5.85 billion package down to $3.7 billion.
Due to the sheer size of the mainland's economy and population, Taiwan can never truly hope to keep pace with Beijing. It only can hope to maintain an adequate defense level, something it acknowledged when it said it favors a "David versus Goliath" military strategy that emphasizes asymmetrical warfare. But if Taipei cannot find the resources to fund its recent planned acquisitions, even an asymmetrical strategy will be difficult to implement.