Editorial: F-35 for Taiwan

The F-35 jet. (By Associated Press)

Taiwan will draw up a list of weapons and defense systems it would like to acquire and submit it to the United States in July, with the F-35 jet from Lockheed Martin Corp. featuring at the top of the list, news service Bloomberg reported Thursday.

The news service’s main concern did not so much focus on Taiwan’s defense needs, as on the likelihood that it would offend China, so soon after President Donald Trump seemed to have toned down his earlier attacks on Beijing.

As early as last year’s election campaign, the brash billionaire launched harsh comments about China for its trade practices, while promising he would officially label the country as a currency manipulator.

After his unexpected election victory, he continued the unorthodoxy in that he accepted to take a phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, a first since President Jimmy Carter decided to recognize Beijing almost four decades ago.

In an interview with Reuters published Thursday, Tsai said she might call Trump again, and also became the first Taiwanese government official to openly declare the intention to go for the F-35.

Last December’s call riled Beijing, but also fomented hopes in Taipei that the new administration, while unpredictable and loud, would dare to go further than its predecessors in standing by Taiwan.

Now the time has come to test that theory.

For the first time since Tsai and Trump were elected to power, the island is drawing up a list of weapons which it wants – and needs – to defend itself from China’s rapidly modernizing military machine.

According to Bloomberg, Taiwan will drop attempts to obtain more modern versions of its existing F-16 fleet but instead move straight ahead to acquire the F-35B, a version of the stealth plane which can perform short takeoffs and vertical landings. The function comes in useful when conventional landing strips have been destroyed by the enemy.

So far, only close allies of the U.S. such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization members like Great Britain and Italy have been allowed to purchase the planes.

The news service quotes senior Democratic Progressive Party lawmaker Wang Ting-yu as saying that even updated F-16 jets will be obsolete after ten years, so it would be a waste of scarce government funds to try and spend them on those.

The most recent time a U.S. president agreed to sell jet aircraft to Taiwan was in 1992, when George H.W. Bush signed off on F-16 fighters, which eventually joined French Mirage 2000 and locally made Indigenous Defense Fighters in Taiwan’s arsenal.

China suspended military talks with the U.S. after President Barack Obama approved a weapons package for Taiwan in 2010, but that did not include newer F-16 models, while he only agreed to an upgrading of the island’s existing planes later.

The context for the Bush sale was markedly different. China’s international image was still reeling in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, when the communist leaders proved to the world that liberalization could not go further than the economy.

Of course, domestic U.S. factors played an even larger role in Bush’s arms sales decision, as he was trying to save jobs in his home state of Texas in the run-up to an election which he eventually lost, putting an end to more than a decade of Republican rule.

Taiwan itself was fully set on the course of democratization, with a Taiwan-born president, Lee Teng-hui, who would eventually, in 1996, be elected by the people amid missile firings by China trying to intimidate voters.

Nobody has any more doubts today that Taiwan stands firmly in the camp of those nations which respect democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law.

However, there are still questions whether President Trump will dare move ahead with a deal which is likely to stir up controversy. Even though he has been seemingly unafraid of making grand statements, observers in the U.S. worry that an arms deal could harm his recent attempts to tackle North Korea.

The likelihood of a full-scale trade war and more confrontation between China and the U.S. waned at the first face-to-face meeting between President Xi Jinping and Trump at the latter’s Florida retreat earlier this month.

The Mar-a-Lago meet also saw his earlier promise to list China as a currency manipulator come to nothing, though both Taiwan and China were put under observation.

The F-35 project has not been without its detractors, including Trump himself. Even after he won the election, Trump slammed the jet fighter, tweeting that its cost was “out of control.” He wrote that billions of dollars could and would be saved on military purchases after his inauguration.

An alternative view on Taiwan’s need for the plane has been presented in a report by the Rand Corporation, which suggests the island should not put all its money on airplanes, but instead concentrate on missiles.

Some commentators have suggested that the F-35, at an estimated US$100 million a piece, is a waste of money because Taiwanese aircraft would be unable to survive a massive onslaught of bombs and missiles from China. In such a scenario, the F-35s could fly just one mission but would have no airports to return to because they would have been destroyed by the Chinese missiles.

That line of thinking says it would be more beneficial for Taiwan to spend its limited funds on highly mobile missile and radar systems.

In that direction, the likelihood has been mentioned that Taiwan could also ask for or be offered the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system causing so many protests in South Korea these days.

Whatever Washington sells to Taiwan, there will always be complaints and protests from Beijing, so Trump should just move ahead and supply the island with what it really needs.

While nothing is certain yet, Taiwan seems to be in the unique position that it has a partner in Washington more likely than ever to listen to its needs and less likely to care about protests from China.

If Taiwan’s government and defense establishments feel the F-35 fulfills the island’s defense needs and is affordable under today’s budgetary constraints, it should go ahead to put its requirements forward, since it has nothing to lose.