In early 2019, Taiwan will get its first four upgraded F16 A/B fighter jets. The upgrades are part of a broader US$330-million deal between the U.S. and Taiwan to convert Taiwan’s 144 F16 A/B planes into the equivalent of higher-end F-16V fighter jets. While the U.S. has only agreed to upgrade Taiwan’s dated fleet, first purchased in the early 1990s, it has recently signed deals to sell the more advanced F35 planes to Taiwan’s neighbours, Korea and Japan.
Despite efforts by Taiwan and its allies in the US Congress to lobby for the purchase of F35s from the U.S., the ambition has not materialized. In March 2018, two Republican senators urged the US President to sell F35s to Taiwan, and in April 2018, Taiwan’s defence minister stated that Taiwan was interested in obtaining these fighter jets.
The U.S. rejection of Taiwan’s request takes place in the context of Trump’s policies to strengthen relations with Taiwan – notably The Taiwan Travel Act from early 2018, which permits high-level U.S. officials to visit Taiwan and vice versa, and the recently enacted Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), which reasserts U.S. support for Taiwan.
Three possible reasons account for the U.S. refusal to approve the sale of F35s to Taiwan. First, the U.S. is concerned about a potential backlash from China following a sale of advanced weapons to Taiwan. Second, according to the National Interest, because Chinese espionage in Taiwan is reportedly rampant, the U.S. is afraid that Chinese agents might steal the F35 technology. Third, as suggested by The Chosun Ilbo, American officials believe that F35s will not withstand attacks from Chinese ballistic missiles. Instead, they advise Taiwan to buy short-range coastal defence missiles to counter possible military incursions from China.
In rejecting the sale of advanced weapons to Taiwan, the Trump administration is following in the footsteps of its predecessor. In 2011, Obama also refused to sell Taiwan newer F16 models, and only reluctantly approved an upgrade of existing Taiwanese planes.