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June 28, 2017

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F-35s for Taiwan? Expect to wait a long time

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Over the past few weeks, the issue of Taiwan's proposed procurement of more advanced fighter jets from the U.S. has resurfaced after the military renewed its request to purchase U.S.-made F-35B fighters from the Donald Trump administration.

Since late 2011, during the previous Ma Ying-jeou administration, the R.O.C. Armed Forces have been expressing hope of procuring the advanced F-35 fifth-generation multirole fighter from the U.S.

And now, the Defense Ministry is renewing the request with the Republican administration in the U.S. after Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported last month that Washington was planning to sell Taiwan F-35s and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system.

Commenting on the arm sales issue, Wu Pao-kun (吳寶琨), head of the ministry's department for strategy planning, reiterated in April Defense Minister Feng Shih-kuan's (馮世寬) stance, saying that Taiwan had no need to deploy THAAD in the short term.

He, however, said that if the U.S. were willing to sell F-35s to Taiwan, the government would welcome it.

In response to lawmakers' questions on whether Taiwan had received related information on such arms sales, Wu said there had been no official word from Washington.

During her interview with Reuters earlier this month, President Tsai Ing-wen herself also reiterated the point.

"We don't rule out any items that would be meaningful to our defense and our defense strategy and the F-35 is one such item," Tsai said.

Why Does Taiwan Need F-35s?

Military experts said F-35B fighters would be ideal for Taiwan's defense needs, but also warned that a limited defense budget and political pressure might make the purchase difficult.

Chieh Chung (揭仲), a senior assistant research fellow at the National Policy Foundation, a Taiwan-based think tank affiliated with the opposition Kuomintang, told The China Post that the short takeoff and vertical-landing capabilities of the F-35B would be extremely useful for the island's forces in wartime.

In case of a cross-strait all-out war, he said, the People's Liberation Army could use ballistic missiles to destroy local airports and airstrips. In doing so, the takeoff capability of Taiwan's existing fighters would be seriously undermined.

"In this sense, the F-35B's short takeoff can offset the advantages of the ballistic missiles fired by mainland China," he said.

The stealth aircraft is also extremely powerful in performing intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions in high-risk areas and can pass collected intelligence to other aircraft to launch precision attacks, he added.

Despite Taiwan's apparent desire to buy the jets, whether the U.S. will grant Taiwan's request remains to be seen.

Based on the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. is obliged to provide Taiwan with weapons of a "defensive nature" to meet the growing threat from China.

It remains to be seen whether F-35 fighter jets with a strong ground-attack capability will be seen by the U.S. sides as a weapon of a defensive nature, a source familiar with the matter told The China Post.

But perhaps the most important issue at stake remains Taiwan's limited defense budget.

Taiwan's annual defense budget usually stands around NT$300 billion (US$10.1 billion). The money is already being used to upgrade existing missile defense systems.

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