This week, the Republican presidential candidates square off in Las Vegas, Nevada for the last debate of 2015. Here's a hypothetical exchange between the CNN anchor of "The Situation Room" and the leading candidate:
WOLF BLITZER: According to public opinion polls, a significant majority of the citizens of Taiwan have an unfavorable view of the People's Republic of China and oppose reunification while voters now appear poised to elect a new president in January favoring a more independent Taiwan. Mr. Trump, would you authorize the sale of F-35s to Taiwan to allow it to better defend itself in the event of a Chinese attack if Taiwan declares its independence?
DONALD TRUMP: Well, first of all Wolf, I'm so glad at least one of the moderators in these debates finally asked a substantive question about China -- perhaps the single most important issue of the 2016 presidential campaign. I thought all we would get tonight is more hysteria about Islamic extremism. As for my answer...
If such a question ever comes up in a series of debates thus far with more "sound and fury" than substance, here's some history and facts every presidential candidate -- and American voter -- needs to know.
The threat of a formal declaration of independence by Taiwan is a clear red line for Beijing. In July of 1995, China began an almost yearlong campaign of intimidation in an attempt to unduly influence Taiwan's first democratic election for its president, which featured a pro-independence candidate Lee Teng-hui. Beijing quite literally fired a series of "warning shot" missile tests less than 40 miles off Taiwan's bow. This provocation was followed by a second wave of missiles, live ammunition exercises, and a "mock Taiwan invasion" in November.
In December, the United States finally responded by sending the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier strike group towards the Taiwan Strait. While several months of quiet followed, China launched additional ballistic missile warning shots in early March and conducted all-out war games with the participation of some 40 naval vessels, 260 aircraft, and 150,000 troops -- effectively a Chinese Communist blockade of the Taiwan Strait. In response, President Bill Clinton moved the USS Independence aircraft carrier strike group already stationed in the Pacific to waters much closer to Taiwan and then summoned the USS Nimitz from the Persian Gulf, ordering it to proceed at high speed.
To the chagrin of Beijing's leadership, its intimidation backfired and helped Lee Teng-hui win 54 percent of the vote. Once America's carrier strike groups steamed into the area, Beijing also realized it had no answer for an American force commanding both the seas and skies above.
In this way, this Third Taiwan Strait Crisis was simultaneously an "ah hah" epiphany and a "never again" moment for Beijing. Since 1996, China has not only sought to develop a world-class navy -- along with an anti-access strategy and anti-ship ballistic missiles designed to keep America's carriers away from Taiwan. China has also steadily transformed its air force from a motley collection of aging aircraft into a modern armada capable of going stealthy toe to missile toe with any rival in the region.
A key part of China's air force modernization has been a Manhattan Project-urgency to develop fifth-generation stealth fighter jets to match those of America's F-22 and F-35. To understand the importance of fifth-generation fighter jets over the Taiwan Strait, it is first necessary to understand the basic US strategy for victory in every conflict it has fought since the day after that "day of infamy" when Imperial Japan seized the skies above Hawaii and bombed Pearl Harbor halfway to oblivion. That strategy is to always first clear the skies and command enemy airspaces with "air superiority" fighters like the F-22.
Once air dominance is thus established, other fighter jets like the F-35, working in tandem with long range bombers like the B-2 and B-52, can then have their way with enemy ships at sea or enemy assets on the ground such as tanks, artillery, and personnel. Through such air dominance, the United States can control any battlefield and thereby maximize its chance of victory.
Of course, the ability of America to dominate the air spaces and therefore the battlefield depends critically on it maintaining a technological edge over its opponents in its fighter jet technology. A case in point is the aforementioned F-22.
The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is arguably the most potent fighter jet on the planet. It combines fourth-generation stealth with fifth-generation super-agility. It is also capable of "supercruise," which allows the fighter to exceed speeds of almost twice the speed of sound over long ranges without afterburners. F-22s are also blessed with "sensor fusion" that distills millions of bits of real time data into " a single, simple picture of the battle space."
As for the F-35, former marine fighter pilot and Pentagon administrator Ed Timperlake describes a "game changer" that "combines stealth and a cockpit fusion engine that gives each pilot uniform knowledge of the rest of the air battle fleet along with the ability to make situational decisions based on real world combat information -- a capability heretofore unknown for information in a cockpit."
In any new Taiwan Strait crisis, there is, however, the distinct possibility that China may gain the upper hand. America built less than 200 of the F-22s before a budget-strapped Congress cancelled further construction. In sharp contrast, China is moving forward at breakneck speed seeking to field its own mutant versions of the F-22 and F-35 -- built with designs stolen from the Pentagon.
For example, the Chengdu J-20 "Mighty Dragon" appears to be a multi-role fighter combining elements of both America's F-22 and F-35 while China's Chengdu J-31 "Gyrfalcon," possibly designed for aircraft carrier use, offers a more compact design evocative of the F-35.
The broader point: The decision as to sell Taiwan the F-35 is a critical strategic one that will be waiting on the new president's desk in January of 2017. Absent large numbers of F-35s and F-22s in the area flown by American and/or Taiwanese pilots, Beijing is likely to quickly establish air dominance and overwhelm the island should it wish to make its final push to seize its "renegade province."
In considering this F-35 decision, our next president would do well to remember this other rich piece of Taiwan Strait history: The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958 ended with an independent Taiwan only because of America's provision of the magic bullet of Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. It was this transfer of leading edge technology that allowed the vastly outnumbered Nationalists to strike the decisive blow over the skies of the Taiwan Straits.
Peter Navarro is a professor at the University of California-Irvine. He is the author of Crouching Tiger: What China's Militarism Means for the World (Prometheus Books) and director of the companion Crouching Tiger documentary film series.
Reprinted with permission from The National Interest.