A new Taiwanese maintenance center for F-16 fighter jets hopes to service the American-made aircraft belonging to multiple countries, a goal that would outrage China and shake up Asian military diplomacy if realized, experts say.
China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and discourages third countries from supporting the Taiwanese government, especially on defense matters. Chinese officials already resent the United States for letting defense contractor Lockheed Martin sell F-16s to Taiwan.
Officials in Taiwan, where most people told government polls in 2019 they would oppose being ruled by China, want to strengthen their defense against China’s larger armed forces and build ties with other governments.
Taiwanese contractor Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation’s F-16 maintenance, repair and overhaul center will service a domestic F-16 fleet while scouting for business “opportunities” from aircraft operators offshore.
The $3.7 billion Lockheed Martin-approved center opened August 28.
“If we can cooperate with regional countries, I think that would be a very important step for Taiwan’s indigenous production and indigenous maintenance of those airplanes,” Taiwan ruling party lawmaker Lo Chih-cheng said.
“We are hoping not just to buy weapons from the States,” Lo said. “We are also hoping to extend the cooperation with other countries, so hopefully there will be some sort of spillover effects.”
Around Asia, Singapore uses 62 F-16 planes, South Korea has 180 and Japan operates 76 aircraft made jointly by American and Japanese companies based on F-16 technology. Thailand has another 54 and Indonesia 33. Taiwan operates 142 with another 66 due for shipment by 2026. Foreign air forces normally work out maintenance deals directly with the contractor.
“Taiwan is sort of close to all the other countries concerned, so it’s quite possible” to take orders from offshore, said Shane Lee, a retired political science professor from Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan.
Asian countries with F-16 fleets recognize China diplomatically over Taiwan, meaning Beijing forbids them from high-level political or defense ties. Their air forces would not want China to see them flying F-16s into Taiwan for servicing, analysts say. China sometimes cuts economic support to countries that offend it.
“The long-term aim of realizing (the maintenance center) as a hub for regional F-16 maintenance, I think this one is so far far-fetched for now, due to political concerns,” said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Top priority for the service center will go to Taiwan's own jets, as the island’s air force keeps busy monitoring for Chinese aircraft that fly into its air defense zone, Koh forecast. Taiwan’s defense ministry reports a surge this year to date in Chinese air force flybys.
“But nonetheless, the way I see it, it’s a good way of marketing this particular hub,” he added. “You prove its capability to be able to maintain the F-16s properly, thereby in the future you may attract potential customers.”
The maintenance center will raise Taiwan’s “aerospace technology level” and expand domestic production, Taiwan’s Vice Premier Shen Jong-chin said in August as quoted on the contractor’s website.
Outside countries could avoid a scene with China by arranging F-16 maintenance in Taiwan through non-government channels such as teams of retired engineers, Koh said.
Japan might send F-16s to Taiwan through a non-governmental organization, especially if it’s not the first country to try that route, said Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.
Whether China objects “I think that it really depends on how the equipment gets there,” Nagy said. “Don’t expect a direct flight to Taiwan anytime soon, but Taiwan is part of the supply chain.”