China has signed a substantial contract with Russia in 2015 to purchase 24 Sukhoi Su-35 fighters in a deal that is worth $2 billion. The TASS, a Russian news agency, reported on Feb. 2 that Russia will deliver the second batch of ten Su-35 fighter jets to China this year with 10 more aircraft in 2018. The sales of these Su-35 would provide the in-depth strength, multi-layered capabilities for the Chinese to defend its South China Sea claims and successfully deter international intervention if China so choses to start a conflict with neighboring countries, or launches an aerial offensive against Taiwan.
Why should the U.S. care? Because the Su-35 is the current jewel-in-the-crown of the Russian combat aircraft family and delivery of more Su-35 fighter jets to China is crucial. Su-35 is Russia's Generation4++ multi-function fighter jet equipped with airborne phased array radar, and TVC engine and 12 hard-points. As a global power, the United States has an enduring interest for stable, free and prosperous Asia-Pacific region. To advance these objectives, the Trump administration will need a coherent strategy to reassure Asia-Pacific allies that they can still rely on an increasingly inward-focused U.S.
With Beijing having developed Chengdu J-20 aircraft and continuously acquiring Su-35 jets, U.S. must acknowledge the growing gap in air power between Taiwan and China. Washington should not only recognize that China has 2,300 operational combat aircraft, while Taiwan has only 490 they need to assure a solution to deal with great imbalance. In the past, the U.S. is committed to assisting Taiwan in addressing the disparity in numbers of aircraft through arms sales and the cooperation with Taiwan on its development of a comprehensive defense strategy vis-à-vis China. Taiwan's inability to adequately defend themselves poses a threat not just to their own security, but also to the United States.
In 2018, the second batch of ten Su-35 fighter jets would ensure Chinese Air Force superiority in the region amid brewing conflicts with other nations over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The Chinese air force will be more structurally advanced with 6,000 service hours durability and superior maximum take-off, flight and landing weights. The tactical situation is unfavorable for Taiwan, as Taiwan is facing a fighter shortage with older aircraft, such as the roughly 50 F-5s and 55 Mirage 2000s. They will begin retiring them within the next 10 years. What will remain are 126 upgraded 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 to Taiwan that has been on hold since 2006.
Taiwan currently still flies the F-16A/B and is facing a significant decline in its air defense capabilities. A Pentagon study on Taiwan’s air power recommends selling Taiwan the more advanced U.S. F-35 joint strike fighter. It signals that the U.S. administration knows full well the F-35 is what Taiwan needs. 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-35s is within the letter of this law, making any sale is consistent with the precepts of U.S. policy.
China's acquisition of Su-35 super maneuverable multirole fighters is disrupting the balance of power in the Pacific. Making the F-35 available to Taiwan would allow its air force to execute missions effectively not only today, but well into the future. A strong and confident Taiwan as an ally is keen to United States' mission to maintain peace and security in East Asia. The sources in both Taiwan and the U.S. indicate that Taiwan is in urgent need of advanced jet fighters for its self-defense. Unless Taiwan buys the next-generation F-35, Taiwan's edge in military quality may gradually disappear as China will own more fighter aircraft with better cutting edge technology.
A recent Pentagon report indicates that the primary driver of Chinese military modernization is to ensure force superiority in the case of a conflict over Taiwan. In order to maintain the current Taiwan-U.S. relation, the Trump's administration should approve the sale of the next-generation F-35s 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 help the country's security and secure its democracy. It has become a greater strategic importance to the United States as the new Trump administration reasserts the U.S. leadership in the Asia Pacific. Taiwan has made a request to purchase the advanced fighters to replace its aging planes. The United States should seriously consider to selling advanced fighters to Taiwan at the earliest opportunity.
Yeni Wong is president of the Institute of Taiwan-America Studies and Ho-I Wu member of the Dean's Council, School of International Service, American University. Kent Wang is advisory commissioner for the Overseas Community Affairs Council of Republic of China (Taiwan) in the United States.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.