Trump-Xi ties put to test as Taiwan bids to buy America’s F-35 fighter jets

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 April, 2017, 3:50pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 April, 2017, 5:22pm

Taiwan’s push to include F-35 fighter jets in its first arms deal with US President Donald Trump could pose the next challenge to the diplomatic detente between the new American leader and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

Taiwan, which has for decades relied on US security aid to deter any attack by China, plans to add the Lockheed Martin Corp. aircraft to a weapons purchase list due to be submitted as soon as July.

At the same time, the island intends to drop a long-standing request for more advanced F-16s to replace its aging fleet that the United States has not approved, according to Wang Ting-yu, head of the Taiwanese legislature’s Foreign and National Defence Committee.

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“We hope we can get F-35s,” Wang said. “We have been waiting for updated F-16s for too long. Their time has gone. If we buy them now, in 10 years’ time they’ll be no use.”

Taiwan’s pursuit of one of the world’s most advanced fighter jets would pit Trump’s goal of boosting exports against his effort to foster cooperation with Xi since their first meeting earlier this month.

US arms sales to Taiwan have been a persistent irritant to Beijing, which views the island as its territory and reserves the right to attack should Taipei move to formalise its de facto independence.

Su Hao, an international relations professor at China Foreign Affairs University, which is affiliated with the country’s foreign ministry, said any F-35 sale would represent a “very problematic” upgrade to Taiwan’s military relationship with the US.

He predicted that Trump was more likely to use it as a bargaining chip than approve it.

“An actual sale would cause a serious setback in bilateral ties, which are just returning to a normal track after the summit in Florida,” Su said. “It would become a huge challenge for both leaders to handle were the sale to take place. Beijing would oppose it without reservation.”

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Taiwan often does not get everything it asks for, particularly when the weaponry would anger China. 

No US president has agreed to sell advanced fighter jets to Taiwan since George H.W. Bush in 1992. China suspended military talks with the US in 2010 after then president Barack Obama’s administration announced a US$6.4 billion arms sale – and that deal did not include the new F-16s Taiwan wanted.

Obama eventually agreed in 2011 to upgrade Taiwan’s existing fleet of about 140 F-16s. Tensions have only increased since then, with last year’s election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen – the leader of a pro-independence party – and Trump’s decision to flout decades of US diplomatic policy and speak with her by phone in December.

A US State Department official who asked not to be identified said defence sales under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 were based on an assessment of Taiwan’s defence needs. The agency did not comment on proposed defence sales until Congress had been notified, the official said.

Taiwan wants the F-35B variant of the stealth warplane, which was designed for the US Marines and can take off from short surfaces and land vertically. The fighter jet, which has also been ordered by Italy and Britain, could help Taiwan maintain air defence should any Chinese missile attack destroy its runways.

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“We will submit our request to the US to purchase jets in July,” said Wang, who is a member of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party. “We hope the U.S. understands our needs. Our fighter jets really are too old.” 

Besides diplomatic considerations, there are questions about whether Taiwan could afford the F-35 or whether the warplane would provide the most effective defence.

A price tag of about US$100 million each would quickly drain the US$2.2 billion Taiwan has set aside for hardware purchases this year. 

A Rand Corporation report published last year highlighted China’s growing aerial advantage and recommended that Taiwan downsize its fighter fleet in favour of stronger surface-to-air missile defences.

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Retired Major General Xu Guangyu, a senior researcher at the Beijing-based China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said acquiring enough F-35s would take Taiwan too long to make a difference. By that time, China’s own next-generation fighters – the J-20 and J-31 – should be in widespread use, Xu said.

“It suits Taiwan’s geography and it would also please the Americans, because that’s their main export fighter jet,” he said. “It’d be too late to tip the balance.”