According to recent reports, Moscow and Beijing expect to seal a deal on the sale of the 4++ generation fighter Su-35S to China in 2014. This gives China the ability to project military power over a larger portion of Southeast Asia and indeed, most of ASEAN. If successful, the acquisition could have an immediate impact on territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. The Su-35, combined with China’s already significant ballistic missile forces and other anti-access weapons, 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? China plans to procure the Sukhoi Su-35 would place all of Taiwan within the scope of China’s air defense network. The tactical situation is unfavorable for Taiwan, as the Su-35S will be able to spot Taiwan’s 126 outdated indigenous defense fighters and 145 aging F-16A/B fighter at 400 kilometers with its new radar. The deal prompted a new round of commentary in Washington on the intent behind China’s robust military modernization and Beijing’s ultimate ambitions.
Taiwan currently 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, 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.
Although U.S. relations with Taiwan are stronger than ever, Taiwan still faces a precarious situation, following Beijing’s announcement of the creation of an extended Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, coupled with rising tensions over maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Why should the U.S. care? Because of the relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan is a cornerstone of foreign policy in the region. Taiwan has a role to play in maintaining regional peace, and the U.S. should continue to help Taiwan maintain an effective deterrent. Indeed, there is voluminous evidence that U.S. arms sales improve cross-Strait stability by deterring the mainland from using military force while also giving Taipei the much-needed security it requires to engage the mainland with a diminished fear of attack or coercion.
Moreover, Taiwan has the ability to play an important role in Washington’s rebalancing strategy. The Obama administration’s pivot to Asia aims to improve security and prosperity in the region. It is clear that Washington and Beijing must find ways to cooperate on issues of mutual interest, and avoid competitive or confrontational issues wherever possible. Because of its proximity to and knowledge of China, Taiwan is uniquely equipped to assist U.S. efforts in this regard. Rather than fearing possible damage to bilateral ties with China, the U.S. should take advantage of the benefits this important partnership can offer.
The rise of China 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 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 U.S. Sources in both Taiwan and the U.S. indicate that Taiwan is in urgent need of advanced jet fighters for its self-defense. If the U.S. is seeking to maintain the status quo with Taiwan, it should approve the sale of the F-35 at the earliest opportunity.
Kent Wang is advisory commissioner for the Overseas Chinese Affairs Council, and publishes frequently on the Taiwan issue in Sino-American relations, as well as other topics on East Asian international politics and regional security.