The year is 2015. During a routine patrol over the Taiwan Strait, two Chinese Su-30MKK pilots, known for their ‘hot-dogging,’ cross the median line, which for years has served as the unofficial divider between Taiwan and mainland China. Picking up the transgressor on radar, Taiwan’s air force scrambles two aging F-16 A/B fighter jets to intercept them. The pilots of the F-16s, sold to Taiwan during the early 1990s, find that the more modern Su-30s are simply too fast and too manoeuvrable for them.
The Taiwanese pilots have grown used to this. They have also grown used to these particular Chinese pilots and their particular brand of showboating. Still, they are surprised when on this occasion, the tandem don’t quickly turn back, instead pressing on towards Taiwan’s coastline. Taiwan’s air defences raise their alert status and a routine encounter quickly becomes a crisis in the making.
Troublingly, this scenario isn’t particularly far-fetched. This past June, two Chinese Su-27 fighters crossed the Taiwan Strait’s median line while chasing a US spy plane. Taiwanese F-16s intercepted the Su-27s, which promptly turned back. An unverified report, disputed by Taiwan’s defence ministry, indicated that six other Chinese jets violated Taiwanese airspace on the same day.
The Chinese military, too, has had a problem with independent-minded officers dragging Beijing into crises. It was a reckless Chinese fighter pilot, for example, that collided with a US EP-3 plane in 2001, forcing it to crash land on Hainan island and sparking an international row with the new Bush administration. Some observers believe that recent clashes between US and Chinese maritime forces may have been similarly prompted by overzealous Chinese boat captains.
In a ‘split-the-baby’ decision announced last month—one aimed primarily at avoiding Chinese ire—the Obama administration decided it won’t sell Taiwan the 66 new F-16 C/D aircraft that Taipei has been requesting, instead offering to upgrade Taiwan’s existing fleet of F-16 A/Bs. Defending this position, the administration has argued that the upgrades will provide Taiwan with the same capabilities as new C/Ds, and that they will do so at a lower price.
Given that Taiwan prefers the new aircraft and is prepared to pay for them, the latter point is irrelevant. To argue, meanwhile, that ‘the upgraded A/Bs will provide essentially C/D quality planes,’ is disingenuous. While the radar and strike capabilities of the two planes are comparable, upgraded A/Bs will lack the more powerful engines of the F-16 C/D that are needed to match China’s most modern fighter jets.
Second, when it comes to deterring Chinese aggression, numbers matter. Taiwan is set to retire more than 100 jets (outdated F-5s and Mirage 2000s) in the next decade, and considers new F-16s as replacements for these old aircraft. New fighters are necessary to ensure that Taiwan even has an air force worth speaking of.
Indeed, without a modern, sizeable Taiwan air force, the scenario outlined above becomes increasingly plausible. A severe imbalance of forces in the Taiwan Strait—a state of affairs toward which the Strait is steadily, though not irreversibly moving—will make a crisis more likely. Such an imbalance risks both tactical miscalculation—such as by a ‘hot dog’ Chinese pilot convinced of his invulnerability in the face of aging Taiwanese forces—or strategic miscalculation by a Chinese leadership convinced it can finally settle the dispute with Taiwan on Beijing’s terms.
A conflict in the Taiwan Strait would directly affect US national security interests and those of US ally Japan, making it difficult for Washington to stand on the side-lines.
Withholding needed arms from Taiwan in the present makes a future conflict—and US intervention therein—more likely. A cordial relationship with Beijing today wouldn’t seem to be worth the future costs to the United States.
Michael Mazza is a Senior Research Associate at the American Enterprise Institute.