Fighter planes and fighting words

DADU MOUNTAIN, Taiwan — In a control room dug into a mountain overlooking the Taiwan Strait, three soldiers from the 951st Anti-Air Artillery Brigade track the intruding airplane on their computer screens. A standing soldier barks procedures at them; the "Sky Bow" surface-to-air missiles are readied.

Then, in unison, the soldiers chant: "Three ... two ... one ... fire."

It was a drill, of course, for the benefit of visiting media. Had this been a real invasion, a Chinese fighter jet would have just been blown to Kingdom Come.

Here, on the coast facing westward to China, the 611th Battalion, Third Company, is part of Taiwan's first line of defense. China wants self-ruled Taiwan back, by force if necessary. These soldiers are here to make sure that doesn't happen.

Their job is getting tougher, though. In recent years, a newly wealthy China has gone on a military shopping spree, buying state-of-the-art Russian fighter jets, destroyers and other lethal goodies, and building more of their own. Taiwan hasn't kept up. The result: the military balance is rapidly tipping in China's favor.

According to the Pentagon, China has 490 combat jets within close range of Taiwan, with hundreds more available. Taiwan has 390, but its fleet is aging. Meanwhile, China now has more than 1,000 short-range missiles aimed at Taiwan, up from about 200 eight years ago.

That makes the 951st Brigade's mission increasingly thankless. Without air superiority over the Strait to keep Chinese planes at bay, this defensive point at Dadu Mountain would likely be quickly overrun; the base bombed to smithereens.

To keep up with China, Taiwan has asked the U.S. for more than 60 advanced F-16 fighters. "We need them [the F-16s], because air supremacy is the last qualitative edge that Taiwan still enjoys, and that edge is tipping," said security expert and former defense official Chong-Pin Lin. "All our other qualitative edges are gone."

For nearly three years, though, Washington has ignored Taiwan's request. And it's still sitting on separate requests for submarines and Black Hawk helicopters. Mark Stokes, a former Pentagon official in charge of arms sales to Taiwan, calls Washington's silent treatment on
the formal request for F-16s a "process foul."

Washington is bound by domestic law — the Taiwan Relations Act —  to make available to the island sufficient weaponry for its self-defense.

The hold-up is political. China pitches a fit every time America sells weapons to its island ally. Arms sales are "politically symbolic," says Chu Shulong, a Beijing-based expert on China-U.S. relations. From China's perspective, "it means the U.S. is interfering in China's internal affairs. It means the U.S. is going to support and protect Taiwan — and that is encouragement for some in Taiwan to pursue independence."

Chu warned that if the U.S. sold Taiwan the F-16s, China could retaliate by cutting off military contacts with the U.S., buying less U.S. Treasuries or halting cooperation with the U.S. on
non-proliferation issues, such as North Korea's nuclear program. He said on this and other issues, "China now needs the U.S. less than the U.S. needs China — this is a big shift."

Taiwan's F-16s request is one of the hot potatoes Barack Obama will inherit when he takes office Jan. 20. How he handles the issue will be a litmus test for his administration's support for this democratic island-nation. More broadly, it will be a sign of his commitment to democracy in Asia and beyond.

Positive developments in the Taiwan Strait may make his job easier. Relations between Taiwan and China have warmed rapidly since the moderate Ma Ying-jeou took office in Taipei last May. Now there's even talk of exchanges between the Taiwanese and Chinese militaries and perhaps, even, a peace deal. That makes war extremely unlikely.

Still, Ma and others here want Taiwan to maintain a strong military. They believe Taiwan should enter negotiations with Beijing from a position of strength. Many Taiwanese agree.

One is Wu Di-jin, 55. I caught up with him at his car repair shop in Taipei, which he runs with his son, Chen-ming, 32. The elder Wu says cross-strait relations may have improved, but it be some time before Taiwan can let down its guard.

On the table next him is an airplane model — an American F-105 "Thunderchief" bomber. Chen-ming made it. He later fetches from a back room an F-16 model he built last year. An airplane enthusiast, he says even the type of F-16s Taiwan has requested aren't ideal — the
technology is too old.

Still, he and his father agree: Taiwan needs the fighters. "Taiwan must be prepared," says the elder Wu, watching over a grandchild in a crib. "It's very important for the U.S. to help us. It would be best for the U.S. to sell us the planes."

For Taiwan, F-16s and other U.S. weapons are an insurance policy in case relations with China go sour. Time will tell if Obama is selling.