Former Sen. Chuck Hagel is facing a new obstacle in his bid to be confirmed as the next secretary of defense: Sales of new F-16 jets to Taiwan.
Minority Whip Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, where the Lockheed Martin F-16s are built, is considering a hold on the nomination. The senator has been a major proponent of new F-16 sales to the island nation amid concerns the growing military imbalance in the region could embroil the United States in a conflict with China.
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Cornyn held up two Obama administration nominees in the past over Taipei’s request for 66 new F-16s.
The senator now is threatening to use his Senate authority to hold up Hagel, who is facing mounting opposition to his nomination from Senate Republicans concerned about his past statements and positions on Iran’s nuclear program, Israel, and advocacy of sharp cuts in U.S. nuclear forces.
"All options are on the table," including a hold on the Hagel nomination, a Cornyn aide told the Free Beacon.
A second Senate aide said that while Cornyn wants to see F-16s sold to Taiwan, his main concern is Hagel's views on Iran and Israel.
Cornyn in June 2011 held up the nomination of William J. Burns to be deputy secretary of state. The hold was lifted after then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised to review the F-16 sale. The administration, however, rejected sales of new jets in favor of a package of upgrading older jets.
Additionally, in February 2012 Cornyn placed a hold on the nomination of Mark Lippert, a close friend of President Barack Obama, to be assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific affairs.
The hold on Lippert was lifted after assurances from deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough that Lippert would consider the jet sales to Taiwan if confirmed. McDonough was recently appointed Obama's chief of staff but Lippert has taken no action on new jets for Taiwan.
Hagel has not provided clear answers on whether he would support the jet sale. Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked Hagel if he supports the sale of "advanced aircraft" to Taiwan as part of the legal U.S. commitment to maintain the island’s defenses.
Hagel signaled indirectly that he does not support new F-16 sales, a position in line with the Obama administration’s past policy.
"In my view, the increasing complexity and sophistication of the military threat to Taiwan from China means that Taiwan must devote greater attention to asymmetric concepts and innovative technologies to maximize Taiwan’s strengths and advantages," Hagel stated in written responses provided recently to Inhofe.
Hagel then stated he believed the United States should provide Taiwan with defense goods that will "enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability today and into the future."
He promised to look at specific self-defense capabilities needed by Taiwan "in light of the security situation in the Taiwan Strait and the evolving military capabilities on the mainland."
Asked specifically if he supports F-16 sales to Taiwan or the more advanced F-35, Hagel again answered indirectly.
"With respect to advanced fighter sales, I believe that we should make available to Taiwan those military capabilities that would allow the Taiwan armed forces to execute its missions effectively not only for today, but well into the future."
Hagel then promised that if he is confirmed, he will "look at what specific capabilities those are—or should be—in light of the security situation in the Taiwan Strait and the evolving military capabilities on the mainland."
A spokeswoman for Hagel said the former senator supports the administration's postions on all issues of national security.
Also, Hagel stated that he would examine what training and exercises could be held with Taiwan and the forces of the Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Command that "will advance U.S. interests, enhance Taiwan’s defense capabilities, and contribute to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait."
The U.S. military currently does not hold formal military exercises with Taiwanese forces, although Taiwanese pilots are trained in the United States.
John Tkacik, a former State Department intelligence official, said a Pentagon study on Taiwan’s air power recommends selling Taiwan the more advanced U.S. F-35 joint strike fighter.
"That tells me the administration knows full well the F-35 is what is needed by Taiwan and that will require the Pentagon to completely rethink how they want to approach Taiwan defense needs with the F-35," said Tkacik, now with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Inhofe, in his questions for Hagel, said the military balance "including air superiority [is] gradually shifting in China’s favor." He asked what plans Hagel has for implementing U.S. security commitments to the island.
The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act requires the U.S. government to provide defensive weapons; China has said the law violates its sovereignty. Beijing insists the island, which broke away from the mainland during a civil war in the 1940s, is part of its territory.
Cornyn warned in a letter to the president in late 2011 that Taiwan’s air force is facing "continuing deterioration" in readiness due to aging aircraft, shifting the balance of power across the 100-mile wide Taiwan Strait in China’s favor.
China’s military forces have engaged in more than a decade of military buildup opposite the island, building more than a thousand short-range missiles, new air defenses, advanced armed drones, and other weaponry.
"As a result, the current cross-strait balance of air power now tips sharply in China’s favor," Cornyn said.
China currently has 2,300 operational aircraft, while Taiwan, a democratic U.S. ally, has 490.
The administration has refused to sell advanced F-16C/D models to Taiwan despite repeated requests from Taiwan over the past several years.
U.S. officials have said the administration opposes the sale because it would upset China’s military. The Chinese military has several times in recent years cut off military contacts with the U.S. military after past U.S. arms sales were announced. Critics say the Chinese are using the Pentagon’s desire for closer exchanges as leverage in preventing needed arms sales to Taiwan, despite the legal requirement in the Taiwan Relations Act.
Instead of new jets, the administration offered to upgrade existing F-16s. Critics say this will fail to adequately boost Taiwan’s air power.
Inhofe, co-chairman of the Senate’s Taiwan Caucus, traveled to Taiwan in January and met with Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou.
An Inhofe spokeswoman had no immediate comment on whether the senator would support a hold on the Hagel nomination in exchange for future F-16 sales.
Inhofe opposes the transfer of F-16s to Egypt to prevent the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi from gaining weapons that could be used against U.S. allies in the region, including Israel.
That F-16 sale was approved under the former regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in 2011.