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F-35s for Taiwan: Will US cross China’s ‘red line’?

12th April 2017 - 9:32 by Wendell Minnick in Taipei

F-35s for Taiwan: Will US cross China’s ‘red line’?

Taiwan's National Security Council has made repeated requests to the Trump White House for the Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter, a high-level US defence industry source has confirmed to Shephard.

With Trump in the Oval Office, and what can best be described as a pro-Taiwan defence inner circle advising the president, the sale of F-35 fighters has suddenly risen from the dead.

However, the Trump administration is still struggling to fill positions in the State Department and Department of Defense (DoD) at the secretary and deputy/under/assistant level. As a result, the source said not to expect a quick decision on the F-35s due to staffing problems.

At best, said another Taiwan defence industry source, do not expect any congressional notifications to be released until July-December due to staffing issues, and the F-35 is unlikely to be released in any event until additional and lengthy evaluations by the US Air Force are conducted.

During the Obama presidency, selling new F-16C/D fighter aircraft to Taiwan was a topic verboten in Washington's halls of power. In 2006 China declared the sale of the more advanced F-16C/D Block 50/52 as a 'red line' for Sino-American relations.

Taiwan wanted 66 new F-16s to replace 56 ageing Mirage 2000 fighters and remaining F-5 Tiger IIs built during the 1970s. Instead of new aircraft, the US government and Taiwan signed a $3.8 billion midlife upgrade package in mid-2012 for 145 remaining F-16A/B Block 20 fighters procured in the early 1990s.

As far back as 2002, Taiwan had expressed an interest in procuring 100-120 F-35 short-take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft. In a confidential letter obtained by Shephard, the request was made by Wang Chi-lin, then director of the defence procurement division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in Washington (Taiwan's de facto embassy).

A letter of intent, and price and availability data for the F-35 was sent to Gregory K.S. Man, then director of political and military affairs at the American Institute in Taiwan (the de facto US embassy), headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.

The letter highlighted Taiwan's need for a STOVL aircraft capable of surviving and operating after a bombardment of its airbases by China's arsenal of tactical ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. At the time, Taiwan was still reeling from the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crises, when China launched ten DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) in waters to the north and south of the island to disrupt democratic elections.

At that time, China had around 50 SRBMs in its arsenal, but today that number is estimated to be 1,500, which does not include newer medium-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.

In a confidential 2004 defence industry briefing, also obtained by Shephard, Mark Stokes, then executive vice president of the Laifu Trading Company, a subsidiary of the Rehfeldt Group in Taipei, provided more details of a proposed F-35 programme for Taiwan.

According to the briefing: 'Expedite ROCAF [Republic of China Air Force] decision to acquire: More than 60 F-35B STOVL as early as 2012-2015; More than 150 F-35A CTOL [Conventional Take-Off and Landing] targeted in 2012-2013. Total contract value is over US$8 billion.'

Prior to the vice presidency position at Laifu, Stokes had served as the Taiwan desk officer in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, at the US DoD.

Wang's TECRO letter to Man detailed a requirement capability to engage enemy forces from the air, after initial strikes against Taiwan air bases had rendered them temporarily inoperative.

'Currently no ROCAF aircraft [are] able to perform the STOVL function. Modifications to existing aircraft are not feasible alternatives. This situation necessitates acquisition of a STOVL aircraft.'

Both Wang and Man are now retired from the government.

There are criticisms of such a sale to Taiwan. The first is that the 'red line' announced by China in 2006 on the F-16 sale to Taiwan would undoubtedly extend to the F-35.

The second problem is espionage and covert operations in Taiwan by Chinese agents. Fears that a Taiwanese F-35 pilot would defect to China for financial reward would no doubt destroy US confidence in Taiwan's ability to safeguard American secrets and permanently end future US arms sales. Of course, this would be a double bonus for China.

Safeguarding secrets in general has been a nightmare for Taiwan over the past two decades.

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