What Would China Do if America Sold Taiwan F-35s?

Imagine a world in which Taiwanese F-35s patrol the skies over the South China Sea.

What would happen if the United States decides to sell its new F-35 Lightning II fighter to Taiwan? The fictionalized scenario below, based on a careful analysis of the Chinese leadership, attempts to answer that question.

March 2, 2017: A Taiwanese fighter jet on a routine patrol collides with a Chinese drone and crashes into the South China Sea; the pilot is killed. In response, the Republic of China Air Force, which for some time has been asking for upgraded planes, presses for a new arms package from America. Despite promising to maintain peace and stability in cross-Strait relations a little over a year ago in her victory speech, Tsai Ing-Wen, Taiwan’s president, is faced with growing pressure to respond strongly. A concerned Legislative Yuan authorizes major defense budget increases (overcoming budget difficulties) aimed at acquiring the F-35. Eager to signal that the rebalance she spearheaded in the Obama administration is returning in full force, newly elected president Hillary Clinton (following the advice of hawkish media commentators) directs the Defense Department to sell Taipei fifty F-35s. The sale is made, despite severe protestations from Beijing. How is a humiliated China likely to respond?

President Xi assembles his National Security Commission (NSC) and asks for options. Exasperated with the United States for so publically rejecting his offer of a “new type of great power relations,” he says he wants to “impose costs” on Taiwan and America for their destabilizing actions. Liu He, Xi’s principal economic advisor and vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, replies that the Sino-American economic relationship is too important to risk over arms sales to Taiwan, which have occurred before. “Moreover, even unofficial aggression, such as the incident with the young singer during the election in Taiwan, can strengthen the voices for independence. Our response, therefore, should be subtle.”

Liu outlines a series of policies. First, he says, drastically cut mainland tourism to Taiwan. Currently, he explains, around four million (or 40 percent) of all tourists visiting Taiwan come from mainland China. Second, go after Taiwanese business elites—a powerful electoral constituency—by hinting in meetings that Taiwanese exports will be curtailed. (Currently, such exports to mainland China make up more than a quarter of all Taiwanese exports.) “We can restrain market access to China for DPP-friendly companies in Taiwan, particularly those with ties to Japan and America, by instructing the Ministry of Commerce to use the new anti-monopoly law to the fullest extent.”

Wang Qishan, the Party’s anti-corruption czar, chimes in: “We should also pay special attention to the estimated one million Taiwanese living on the mainland and initiate disciplinary investigations against any two-faced entrepreneurs who benefit from Chinese trade while supporting independence.”

Xi’s chief of staff and director of the General Office, Li Zhanshu, sums up the objective of these economic actions: halt both official and unofficial cross-Strait dialogue to punish Tsai Ing-wen, and incentivize Taiwan’s business elites and even ordinary entrepreneurs to work to restore positive and peaceful cross-Strait relations.

Nodding in consent, Xi agrees to this plan of action. “But what about military options?” he inquires.

Air Force General and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) Xu Qiliang speaks up. “These fighters do not fundamentally change the military balance. We already cover Taiwan with S-400 ground to air missiles and as long as the Americans remain uninvolved in any dispute, we will retain total air dominance despite the new fighters.”

“Exactly,” breaks in Wang Huning, Xi’s chief ideologue and a confidant of the last three Chinese presidents. “Furthermore, if we respond too aggressively to the sale of the fighters, we could strengthen pro-independence rebels in Taiwan and undermine the peaceful nature of the China dream.” Looking directly at the two CMC vice chairmen, Wang declaims: “There should be no missiles fired into the ocean like in previous crises, and no independent military response. Instead, as in the economic sphere, China’s response should be shrewder.”