Photo: @frankcrebas on Instagram
The sale of US F-35 fighter jets to the UAE has been halted by the Biden administration Photo: @frankcrebas on Instagram

China is building up its capabilities to invade Taiwan, according to US intelligence, but America hasn’t sold advanced fighter jets to Taiwan since 1992. As a democratic ally of the United States under pressure from increasing Chinese aggression, Taiwan deserves support in its national defense. Providing it is done in a way that prioritizes US security interests, President Donald Trump should greenlight the sale of advanced fighters to Taiwan.

Since 2018, Chinese bombers and warships have continually conducted exercises near Taiwan and the number of Chinese air patrols off Taiwan’s east coast has quadrupled since last year, a show of force that officials in Beijing called a warning not to pursue formal independence. On March 31, two Chinese J-11 fighter jets crossed the Taiwan Strait’s “median line,” sparking a 10-minute standoff with Taiwanese jets in the island’s airspace. The encounter marks one of the most serious incursions by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fighter jets on the Taiwanese side of the maritime border this century.

Why should the United States care? Cross-strait relations have deteriorated since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, with Beijing using pressure tactics, including threats of military action, to try to assert its claims over Taiwan. As a global power, the United States has an enduring interest in keeping the Indo-Pacific region stable, free and prosperous. To advance these objectives, the Trump administration will need a coherent strategy to reassure Indo-Pacific allies that they can still rely on an increasingly inward-focused US.

China has purchased 34 powerful Russian-made Sukhoi Su-35 fighters in recent years. It is the most potent fighter currently in operation in the Russian air force. The Su-35s are key PLA assets, providing China with strong, multi-layered capabilities for defending its South China Sea claims and successfully deterring international intervention if Beijing chooses to start a conflict with neighboring countries, or launches an aerial offensive against Taiwan.

With Beijing having developed the Chengdu J-20 aircraft and continuously acquiring Su-35 jets, the US must acknowledge the growing gap in air power between Taiwan and China. China has 2,300 operational combat aircraft while Taiwan has only 490, so Washington needs to address this great imbalance. In the past, the US has been committed to assisting Taiwan in addressing its relative weakness in terms of aircraft numbers through arms sales and cooperation with Taipei on the development of a comprehensive defense strategy vis-à-vis China. Taiwan’s inability to adequately defend itself poses a threat not just to their own security, but also to the United States.

The 34 Su-35 fighter jets ensure Chinese air superiority in the region amid brewing conflicts with other nations over territorial disputes in the South China Sea

The 34 Su-35 fighter jets ensure Chinese air superiority in the region amid brewing conflicts with other nations over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The Chinese air force is more structurally advanced, so the tactical situation is unfavorable for Taiwan, as it is facing a fighter shortage. Older aircraft such as the roughly 50 F-5s and 55 Mirage 2000s will be phased out within the next five years. What will remain will be 126 upgraded IDFs and 145 F-16A/B fighters. Taiwan has initiated an upgrade program for its F-16s but still wants the US to send 60 F-16V fighters to Taiwan, a transfer that has been on hold since 2006.

Taiwan, which still uses the F-16A/B, is facing a significant decline in its air-defense capabilities. A Pentagon study on Taiwan’s air power recommends selling it the more advanced fighter. It signals that the US administration knows full well that powerful advanced fighters are what Taiwan needs. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the US is obligated to supply Taiwan with all necessary weapons to mount a sufficient defense. There is no question that a request for advanced fighters is within the letter of this law, making any sale consistent with the precepts of US policy.

Initially, Taiwan was seeking to acquire a high-end, heavy American combat jet, either an advanced derivative of the F-15EX Eagle heavy air superiority fighter or the stealthy F-35 fifth-generation light multirole fighter. Taipei has reportedly settled on the F-16V as a less capable alternative. This notably came as a result of the United States’ reluctance to sell its longstanding ally other higher-end combat jets, which was due to defense technology security factors.

In contrast to the F-35 and the high-end F-15EX, the F-16’s airframe does not represent a highly sensitive technology – even when upgraded to the F-16V standard. While the F-16V’s electronic warfare and radar systems are high end, they are arguably no more capable, and in many ways are inferior, to the jets the PLA already operates – particularly new aircraft such as the J-10C and J-20.

A recent Pentagon report further indicates that the primary driver of Chinese military modernization is ensuring force superiority in the event of a conflict over Taiwan. In order to maintain the current Taiwan-US relationship, the Trump’s administration should approve the sale of the next-generation advanced jet fighters to Taiwan. The United States must stand with Taiwan to ensure that it can defend itself and that its self-defense capabilities never lag behind.

The advanced fighters will ensure the country’s security and secure its democracy. It has become a matter of great strategic importance to the United States as the Trump administration reasserts US leadership in the Indo-Pacific. Taiwan has made a request to purchase the advanced fighters to replace its aging planes. The United States should seriously consider selling advanced fighters to Taiwan at the earliest opportunity.

I honestly believe that the United States has a significant interest in helping Taiwan because of its strategic position in the island chain bracketing China’s east coast. Selling the advanced fighters to Taiwan to avert a crisis is clearly in the US interest. Trump should bolster Taiwan’s defenses with the sale of advanced fighters, especially given Chinese efforts to change the cross-Strait status quo. Given significant developments across the Taiwan Strait over the past two years, it is time to sell advanced fighters to Taiwan.

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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