Taiwan's Pursuit of F-35 Tests Trump's Early Rapport With Xi

  • Request for advanced fighter jet could come as soon as July
  • Pits U.S. leader’s push to boost exports against China ties

Taiwan's Push for F-35's Could Pose Diplomatic Challenge

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

Taiwan, which has for decades relied on U.S. 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 longstanding request for more advanced F-16s to replace its aging fleet that the U.S. hasn’t approved, according to Wang Ting-yu, head of the Taiwanese legislature’s Foreign and National Defense Committee.

“We hope we can get F-35s,” Wang told Bloomberg News. “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. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have been a persistent irritant to China, which views the island as its territory and reserves the right to attack should Taipei move to formalize 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 U.S. 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.”

Taiwan often doesn’t get everything it asks for, particularly when the weaponry would anger China. No U.S. president has agreed to sell advanced fighter jets to Taiwan since George H.W. Bush in 1992. China suspended military talks with the U.S. in 2010 after President Barack Obama’s administration announced a $6.4 billion arms sale -- and that deal that didn’t include the new F-16s Taiwan wanted.

Trump-Tsai Call

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 U.S. diplomatic policy and speak with her by phone in December.

A U.S. State Department official who asked not to be identified said that defense sales under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 were based on an assessment of Taiwan’s defense needs. The agency doesn’t comment on proposed defense sales until Congress has been notified, the official said.

“We resolutely oppose any county selling weapons to Taiwan,” Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Senior Colonel Yang Yujun said when asked Thursday about the possible F-35 request at a regular briefing in Beijing.

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

“We will submit our request to the U.S. to purchase jets in July,” said Wang, who’s 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 defense. A price tag of about $100 million each would quickly drain the $2.2 billion Taiwan has set aside for hardware purchases this year. 

“One question that should be addressed is the cost-benefit analysis,” said Richard Bush, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies and a former U.S. envoy to Taiwan. “Why does Taiwan believe that getting this very expensive system will enhance deterrence enough to justify the use of scarce resources?”

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

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.”

— With assistance by Nick Wadhams, Anthony Capaccio, and Peter Martin

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE