The chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific says recently announced upgrades of Taiwan's fleet of F-16 fighter jets will improve the island's defense capability but the military balance will remain heavily tilted in China's favor.
Adm. Robert Willard told a news conference Tuesday the disparity in combat power across the Taiwan Strait is profound, because of China's ballistic missiles, fighter aircraft and missile defense.
"Taiwan arms sales are not going to ever achieve the rebalance of that," Willard said.
The U.S. decided last week against selling new F-16s that Taiwan wants to replace other aging aircraft, but has still angered China by agreeing to the upgrades of the fleet of 145 F-16s that the U.S. sold it in the 1990s. China has told the U.S. it will respond by canceling or postponing some U.S.-China military exchanges.
But Willard said Beijing was very likely to retain the highest-level exchanges of visits because of their importance to China, allowing the two sides to continue strategic discussions.
The Obama administration has deepened ties with Beijing, and sees the military exchanges as mitigating the risk of U.S. forces tangling with China's in East Asia and the West Pacific. Since May, the U.S. joint chiefs of staff and his Chinese counterparts have both visited each other.
"There are too many important security issues dealing with the Asia-Pacific and the world to allow a single disagreement between governments to stop consultations altogether," Willard told the news conference held in Washington but also aired in New York.
Willard described the $5.85 billion sale as the right course "for the time being" to refurbish Taiwan's air force that would help contribute to stability across the Taiwan Strait. He urged China to narrow the "disparity in combat power" which has continued to grow despite improved relations between Taiwan and the mainland in the past three years.
China regards self-governing Taiwan, which lies 100 miles (160 kilometers) off the coast of the mainland, as part of its territory. The U.S. is obligated under legislation passed by Congress in 1979 to provide the island weapons for its self-defense.
Willard also called for deepening the U.S. military relationship with Russia, whose forces he said were re-emerging after diminishing following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He noted Russia was conducting strategic flights, longer naval expeditions and putting its submarines back to sea, and becoming more active in the Pacific. He said more dialogue was needed between Russia and the U.S. and close ally Japan to understand Russia's intent.
Japan has complained of the increased Russian military activity around a disputed group of islands that Russia calls the Kurils and Japan has named the Northern Territories.
The islands, seized by Soviet troops during the final days of World War II, give Russia a military toehold just six miles (10 kilometers) off the northeastern tip of Japan. The islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and are believed to have offshore oil and natural gas reserves, plus gold and silver deposits.
Willard heads the U.S. Pacific Command based in Hawaii that oversees a huge swath of territory and seas where the U.S. military has hundreds of thousands of personnel and five aircraft carrier strike groups.