Commentary: Fighter jet sales to Taiwan and the complex US-China balance of power
The move to sell US fighter jets to Taiwan has stirred fresh debate about the region’s balance of power, amid a brewing US-China rivalry, says defence observer Mike Yeo.
MELBOURNE: The recent announcement by the Trump administration approving the sale of new fighter jets to Taiwan has predictably drawn ire from China and stirred fresh debate about American arms sales to the East Asian island.
According to a notification to the Congress issued by the United States’ Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) in August, we are likely to see the sale of 66 Lockheed-Martin F-16C/D Block 70 multirole fighter jets to Taiwan in an US$8 billion arms package that include advanced electronically scanned array radars, weapons integration, spares, and additional contractor and logistics support.
The new-build fighters will replace the 40 or so 1970s-era Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II interceptors currently in service with the Taiwanese air force, and will be broadly similar to the capabilities offered by Taiwan’s current 140-odd F-16A/B Block 20 fighters, after these have been put through a US$5.3 billion Lockheed-Martin upgrade programme that Taiwan signed up for in 2011.
This approval is the latest arms sale to Taiwan following its approval of a Taiwanese request for 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks and 250 short-range surface-to-air missiles worth US$2.2 billion in July, and is the 16th such arms sale request approved for Taiwan since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.
It also comes amid an escalating trade war between Washington and China, which has seen both sides slap tit-for-tat tariffs on each other’s goods and services.
It adds another layer to the increasingly fraught relationship between the two countries over a wide range of issues that range from whether China’s telecommunications giant Huawei and its 5G telecommunication network poses a security risk to flashpoints in the South China Sea.
AN ATTEMPT AT CONTAINMENT?
On the security front, China has always suspected that the US is attempting to contain China’s rise both economically and militarily, and this latest move to sell arms to Taiwan is viewed as particularly unfriendly.
Taiwan, in addition to being the subject of a tussle over its status, is a vital link in what is called the First Island Chain, a line of major archipelagos out from the East Asian continental mainland coast stretching from Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula stretching down to Peninsula Malaysia and principally comprising of the Kuril Islands, Japan and its southern islands, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo.
The thinking is that holding the line in the First Island Chain during a time of conflict would keep the Chinese, specifically its navy, from “breaking out” through the various choke points between the island chains to the Western Pacific and instead leave it bottled up inside the relatively confined waters of the East and South China Seas where they can then be tracked and engaged.
China’s reaction to the news of the sale has been swift but predictable, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang calling it “severe interference in China’s internal affairs”, adding that it undermines “China’s sovereignty and security interests” at a briefing in Beijing hours after the sale was announced.
He also said that “China will take all necessary measures to defend its own interests”, repeating earlier threats by China to impose sanctions on US companies involved in the arms sales to Taiwan.
The Chinese government has warned against interference in the question of Taiwan, and reiterated at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June that China would “fight to the end” if anyone tried to split Taiwan from China.
CHINA’S GROWING CLOUT
In recent years, China has also used its considerable political and economic clout to steadily isolate Taiwan’s diplomatic presence, such as through blocking its bids to re-join international groupings like the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which looks after international aviation safety among other areas.
China’s clout is such that its isolation of Taiwan has extended into the issue of arms sales, with many Western nations unwilling to sell weapons to Taiwan to avoid diplomatic or economic blowback from China.
Although Taiwan has German minesweepers and Dutch submarines, the last European country to make a major arms sale to Taiwan has been France, when it sold 60 Dassault Mirage 2000 fighter jets to Taiwan in the early 1990s.
China retaliated against the sale by closing the French consulate in Guangzhou and freezing ties with France, reversing it only when the European country undertook to refrain from such sales in the future. Today, the US is the only country willing to openly sell major defence equipment to Taiwan.
A GROWING MILITARY IMBALANCE
China’s transformation into an economic and industrial powerhouse over the past two decades has seen its military capability grow accordingly.
Today the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), together with its air force and navy, outnumbers Taiwan in almost every measure. As an example, the PLA is estimated by the most recent US Defence Department’s annual China Military Power report to boast 5,800 tanks and 8,000 artillery pieces compared to Taiwan’s 850 and 1,000 respectively.
The mismatch is also evident in the air and at sea. China, which has embarked on a massive ongoing naval build-up, can call on about 130 major naval vessels and 60 submarines including 10 nuclear-powered boats with more being built at multiple shipyards along China’s coast.
They could face off 26 Taiwanese naval vessels and four elderly submarines, while in the air, an estimated Chinese 1,500 fighters and 450 bombers and attack aircraft may go up against the 350 fighters Taiwan can muster.
Even allowing for its large land area and long borders to defend, the PLA’s Eastern and Southern Theatre Command, which will be on the frontline against Taiwan, still easily outnumber their counterparts across the Taiwan Strait.
Improving road and rail infrastructure in China also means that while still an onerous undertaking, China can now shift its forces from elsewhere more easily than before.
THE US’ CALCULATIONS
The US, particularly during the latter part of the administrations of President George W Bush and then President Barack Obama’s two terms, has frequently rejected Taiwanese requests over the past decade to sell its most advanced weapons.
Both sought to improve US-China ties, opting to sell less capable equipment such as refurbished frigates already retired from US service instead.
The list of rejected requests includes the stealthy Lockheed-Martin F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter and, until recently, M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks.
Taiwan had wanted F-35B fighters with the short take-off vertical landing capability to preserve its ability to generate air power in case of surprise PLA attacks on Taiwanese airfields disabling runways, particularly from China’s thousands of ballistic and land-attack cruise missiles.
These attempts to negotiate the sale were, however, stymied with the Obama Administration offering the aforementioned F-16 upgrade package to Taiwan instead.
This is despite the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, which acted as a security guarantee for the island after the US recognised and established formal relations with China.
The TRA was enacted by Congress as a response, and commits the United States to "make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability".
This US reluctance to sell arms to Taiwan, together with China’s military modernisation, had led some observers to question if Taiwan still has the ability to deter China from taking the military option if it chooses to.
So Trump’s move to sell Taiwan more arms is a marked change from the previous two administrations. As a shorthand, there have been 16 congressional notification of arms sales under Trump so far.
That number is comparable to each of Obama and Bush’s two terms in office, for which most involve programmes and packages of less than US$2 billion.
Even then, the US has been careful to manage its posture and not to let these sales rupture US-China ties.
THE LIKELIHOOD OF CONFLICT
Modern military deterrence theory holds that the aim of military defence is, as the Washington-based think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies writes, to "dissuade an adversary from taking aggressive action by persuading that actor that the costs would outweigh the potential gains".
If the military imbalance between two parties is great, the stronger side is more likely to see military action as a feasible course of action if it thinks a quick and relatively low-cost victory is achievable.
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In such circumstances, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, arming the weaker side could reduce the likelihood of conflict. It is therefore noteworthy that the US is selling Taiwan more F-16s.
The reasoning behind this could also be partly to simplify Taiwan’s logistics chain and training needs given it already operates the F-16 and introducing a new fighter type will mean an additional burden to train personnel on how to operate and support it.
While it is too much to expect any semblance of military parity to be reached given the vast gulf in their defence budgets (China will spend US$164 billion compared to Taiwan’s US$13 billion on defence next year), a defending force that can inflict a sufficient level of pain on a potential aggressor is more likely to give the latter pause over the consequences of its actions.
That the US could also opt to sell to Taiwan arguably more capable (and expensive) aircraft such as the stealthy, cutting-edge F-35 or newer versions of the Boeing F-15 Eagle, which has greater range and weapons capabilities than the F-16, is also telling.
The US is also probably wary of being seen as supplying a capability above and beyond what Taiwan needs for self-defence and deterrence.
As we can see from the above, the background to the thorny issue of arms sales to Taiwan is a multi-layered, nuanced one. There are many factors at play that also stem from the emerging great power competition in Asia.
The concepts of diplomacy, deterrence and what makes a viable defence are also issues that need to be considered, and with the trade war ongoing and an American presidential election due in a little over a year’s time, there will still be more to come from this ongoing saga.
Mike Yeo is the Asia reporter for US-based defence publication Defense News.