When President Obama travels to China in November for an APEC summit, he should pay special attention to Taiwan. It is not in U.S. interests to see Taiwan slowly and steadily eclipsed by China’s emerging air power.
Moscow and Beijing expect to seal the deal on the sale of the Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 SAMs to China in late 2014 or early next year, a deputy director general of Rosoboronexport said recently. Whether the sale goes forward today or next year, it will spell trouble for Taiwan. The 400-kilometer-range S-400 will allow China to strike any aircraft over Taiwan. This will not only give China effective control of Taiwan’s airspace during a war, it also gives China the ability to project military power over a larger portion of Southeast Asia and indeed, most of the Association of Southeat Asian Nations (ASEAN). If successful, it could provide strength-in-depth, multi-layered capabilities to protect China’s claims and make others less eager to intervene if China chose to pursue conflict with its neighbors.
So where does Taiwan fit into this? Taiwan’s defense ministry recently warned that by 2020, China will be able to invade Taiwan and fend off U.S. forces seeking to intervene. China plans to procure Su-35 and S-400 would place all of Taiwan within the scope of China’s air defense network. The tactical situation is unfavorable for Taiwan, as Taiwan is facing a fighter shortage as older aircraft, such as the roughly 50 F-5s and 55 Mirage 2000s, begin retiring within the next 10 years. What remain are 126 upgraded indigenous defense fighters (IDFs) and 145 F-16A/B fighters. Taiwan has initiated an upgrade program for the F-16s, but still insists the U.S. release 66 F-16C/D fighters on hold since 2006.
There is an argument to be made that U.S. is not keeping pace. Washington should change the quality of its interaction in recognition of Taiwan’s deepening and strengthening democracy. Project 2049 Institute president Randall Schriver said that the arms sales process was “absolutely broken” and that the two nations were now in the longest stretch in their relationship without the U.S. Congress being informed of new arms sales. Schriver said that it had been “three years and counting” since the last arms sales notification. “Legitimate security requirements are not being met,” he said. He further mentioned there was a “de facto freeze” on arms sales and that “something had to be done to fix it.”
One response for Washington would be to sell Taiwan a very short take-off and supersonic climbing fighter. A Pentagon study on Taiwan’s air power recommends selling Taiwan the more advanced F-35 joint strike fighter. It signals that the U.S. administration knows full well the F-35 is what Taiwan needs, but the sale would require a comprehensive rethink on Taiwan at the Pentagon. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. is obligated to supply Taiwan with all necessary weapons to organize a sufficient defense. There is no question that a request for F-35 is within the letter of this law, making any sale consistent with the precepts of U.S. policy.
Facing the Su-35 fighters and S-400 SAMs, the air and missile threat to Taiwan is very real and growing fast. Whether or not Taiwan can pull it off could hardly be more important for the United States and the future of the Asia-Pacific region. Without new fighters, Taiwan knows that it may soon find itself overwhelmed in the air even though its pilots are far better trained than their adversaries. This is of critical importance because airpower is often the single most decisive element of modern military operations, and it is especially crucial for the defense of island nations like Taiwan. Taiwan must maintain the ability to contest PLA air superiority through its superior quality. The U.S. military cannot afford a gap in the emerging regional security shield in the Western Pacific.
Analysts mostly agreed that China would be highly reluctant to attempt a maritime blockade or amphibious invasion against Taiwan unless it could first establish air superiority. Indeed, there is voluminous evidence that U.S. arms sales improve cross-Strait stability by deterring China from using military force while also giving Taiwan the much-needed security it requires to engage China with a diminished fear of attack or coercion. Taiwan’s ability to deny the PLA control over the air domain significantly reduces the possibility of a cross-Strait conflict, and contributes to improved regional stability and supports U.S. security interests in Asia. Thus, a strong Taiwan confident in its relationship with the U.S. is key to peace and security in East Asia, and is thus of profound importance to the United States.
Wang is advisory commissioner for the Overseas Chinese Affairs Council of Republic of China (Taiwan) in the United States.