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Commentary: Fighter jet sales to Taiwan and the complex US-China balance of power

MELBOURNE: The recent announcement by the Trump administration approving the sale of new fighter jets to Taiwan has predictably drawn ire from China and stirred fresh debate about American arms sales to the East Asian island.

According to a notification to the Congress issued by the United States Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) in August, we are likely to see the sale of 66 Lockheed-Martin F-16C/D Block 70 multirole fighter jets to Taiwan in an US$8 billion arms package that include advanced electronically scanned array radars, weapons integration, spares, and additional contractor and logistics support.

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The new-build fighters will replace the 40 or so 1970s-era Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II interceptors currently in service with the Taiwanese air force, and will be broadly similar to the capabilities offered by Taiwans current 140-odd F-16A/B Block 20 fighters, after these have been put through a US$5.3 billion Lockheed-Martin upgrade programme that Taiwan signed up for in 2011.

This approval is the latest arms sale to Taiwan following its approval of a Taiwanese request for 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks and 250 short-range surface-to-air missiles worth US$2.2 billion in July, and is the 16th such arms sale request approved for Taiwan since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.

It also comes amid an escalating trade war between Washington and China, which has seen both sides slap tit-for-tat tariffs on each others goods and services.

This handout picture taken and released on May 25, 2018 by Taiwan's Defence Ministry shows Taiwan's F-16 fighter jet monitoring one of two Chinese H-6 bombers that flew over the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan and the Miyako Strait, near Japan's Okinawa Island. (Photo: AFP PHOTO/Taiwan Defence Ministry)

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It adds another layer to the increasingly fraught relationship between the two countries over a wide range of issues that range from whether Chinas telecommunications giant Huawei and its 5G telecommunication network poses a security risk to flashpoints in the South China Sea.

AN ATTEMPT AT CONTAINMENT?

On the security front, China has always suspected that the US is attempting to contain Chinas rise both economically and militarily, and this latest move to sell arms to Taiwan is viewed as particularly unfriendly.

Taiwan, in addition to being the subject of a tussle over its status, is a vital link in what is called the First Island Chain, a line of major archipelagos out from the East Asian continental mainland coast stretching from Russias Kamchatka Peninsula stretching down to Peninsula Malaysia and principally comprising of the Kuril Islands, Japan and its southern islands, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo.

The thinking is that holding the line in the First Island Chain during a time of conflict would keep the Chinese, specifically its navy, from “breaking out” through the various choke points between the island chains to the Western Pacific and instead leave it bottled up inside the relatively confined waters of the East and South China Seas where they can then be tracked and engaged.

READ: Commentary: The sands in the South China Sea dispute may be shifting

READ: Commentary: Was tough talk on South China Sea to boost US export of drones to Southeast Asia?

Chinas reaction to the news of the sale has been swift but predictable, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang calling it “severe interference in Chinas internal affairs”, adding that it undermines “Chinas sovereignty and security interests” at a briefing in Beijing hours after the sale was announced.

He also said that “China will take all necessary measures to defend its own interests”, repeating earlier threats by China to impose sanctions on US companies involved in the arms sales to Taiwan.

The Chinese government has warned against interference in the question of Taiwan, and reiterated at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June that China would “fight to the end” if anyone tried to split Taiwan from China.

Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe speaks at the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, June 2, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Feline Lim)

CHINAS GROWING CLOUT

In recent years, China has also used its considerable political and economic clout to steadily isolate Taiwans diplomatic presence, such as through blocking its bids to re-join international groupings like the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which looks after international aviation safety among other areas.

Chinas clout is such that its isolation of Taiwan has extended into the issue of arms sales, with many Western nations unwilling to sell weapons to Taiwan to avoid diplomatic or economic blowback from China.

READ: Commentary: The US, China, a security dilemma and a way out in Singapore

READ: Commentary: China has more influence as a rising superpower but not in all areas

Although Taiwan has German minesweepers and Dutch submarines, the last European country to make a major arms sale to Taiwan has been France, when it sold 60 Dassault Mirage 2000 fighter jets to Taiwan in the early 1990s.

China retaliated against the sale by closing the French consulate in Guangzhou and freezing ties with France, reversing it only when the European country undertook to refrain from such sales in the future. Today, the US is the only country willing to openly sell major defence equipment to Taiwan.

A GROWING MILITARY IMBALANCE

Chinas transformation into an economic and industrial powerhouse over the past two decades has seen its military capability grow accordingly.

Today the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), together with its air force and navy, outnumbers Taiwan in almost every measure. As an example, the PLA is estimated by the most recent US Defence Departments annual China Military Power report to boast 5,800 tanks and 8,000 artillery pieces compared to Taiwans 850 and 1,000 respectively.

A soldier takes part in the live fire Han Kuang military exercise, which simulates China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) invading the island, in Pingtung, Taiwan May 30, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

The mismatch is also evident in the air and at sea. China, which has embarked on a massive ongoing naval build-up, can call on about 130 major naval vessels and 60 submarines including 10 nuclear-powered boats with more being built at multiple shipyards along Chinas coast.

They could face off 26 Taiwanese naval vessels and four elderly submarines, while in the air, an estimated Chinese 1,500 fighters and 450 bombers and attack aircraft may go up against the 350 fighters Taiwan can muster.

Even allowing for its large land area and long borders to defend, the PLAs Eastern and Southern Theatre Command, which will be on the frontline against Taiwan, still easily outnumber their counterparts across the Taiwan Strait.

Improving road and rail infrastructure in China also means that while still an onerous undertaking, China can now shift its forces from elsewhere more easily than before.

THE US CALCULATIONS

The US, particularly during the latter part of the administrations of President George W Bush and then President Barack Obamas two terms, has frequently rejected Taiwanese requests over the past decade to sell its most advanced weapons.

Both sought to improve US-China ties, opting to sell less capable equipment such as refurbished frigates already retired from US service instead.

The list of rejected requests includes the stealthy Lockheed-Martin F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter and, until recently, M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks.

Taiwan had wanted F-35B fighters with the short take-off vertical landing capability to preserve its ability to generate air power in case of surprise PLA attacks on Taiwanese airfields disabling runways, particularly from Chinas thousands of ballistic and land-attack cruise missiles.

READ: Commentary: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will change the rules of the air power game

The F-35 is a state of the art stealth plane. (Photo: AFP)

These attempts to negotiate the sale were, however, stymied with the Obama Administration offering the aforementioned F-16 upgrade package to Taiwan instead.

This is despite the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, which acted as a security guarantee for the island after the US recognised and established formal relations with China.

The TRA was enacted by Congress as a response, and commits the United States to "make available to Taiwan