Trump in a fix as Taipei eyes F-35s

An F-35 fighter jet at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah.
An F-35 fighter jet at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah.PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI • Taiwan's push to include F-35 fighter jets in its first arms deal with President Donald Trump could pose the next challenge to the diplomatic detente between the US leader and his Chinese counterpart, Mr Xi Jinping.

Taiwan plans to add the Lockheed Martin aircraft to a weapons purchase list due to be submitted as early as July. At the same time, the island intends to drop a longstanding request for more advanced F-16s to replace its ageing fleet that the US has not approved, said Mr Wang Ting-yu, head of the Taiwanese legislature's Foreign and National Defence Committee.

"We hope we can get F-35s," Mr Wang told Bloomberg News. "We have been waiting for updated F-16s for too long. Their time has gone."

Taiwan's pursuit of one of the world's most advanced fighter jets would pit Mr Trump's goal of boosting exports against his effort to foster cooperation with Mr Xi.

Professor Su Hao, an international relations expert at China Foreign Affairs University, said any F-35 sale would represent a "very problematic" upgrade to Taiwan's military relationship with the US. He predicted that Mr Trump was more likely to use it as a bargaining chip than approve it.

No US president has agreed to sell advanced fighter jets to Taiwan since Mr George Bush in 1992. Tensions have increased with last year's election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party and Mr Trump's decision to flout decades of US diplomatic policy and speak with her by phone.

 There are questions about whether Taiwan could afford the F-35 or whether the jets are cost-effective. A price tag of about US$100 million each would quickly drain the US$2.2 billion Taiwan has set aside for hardware purchases this year. 

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2017, with the headline 'Trump in a fix as Taipei eyes F-35s'. Print Edition | Subscribe