Why America Upgraded Chinese Fighter Jets With F-16 Parts

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: The termination of Peace Pearl may have saved the Pentagon from having to develop defenses against more of its own weapons systems.

By 2019, increasingly open economic and security competition between the United States and China has have given plenty of fodder for international relations scholars fearing that the established and rising superpower are bound for conflict due to the so-called Thucydides Trap.

However, those dreading inevitable military conflict should remember that the course of history has plenty of surprising twists and turns. Just thirty years earlier, the United States was actually developing two upgraded jet fighters for China.

To understand why, requires grasping the evolving Cold War mindset of the 1980s. Formerly close partners, relations between Communist China and the Soviet Union deteriorated nearly to the point of near war by 1969. However, China also remained hostile to the United States, which it had fought in the Korean War and actively opposed in Vietnam. Washington, meanwhile, did not even recognize Beijing in favor of the Republic of China based in Taiwan.

However, in 1971 Henry Kissinger used Pakistan, allied with both China and the United States, to secretly establish a diplomatic backchannel to Beijing. This blossomed in 1979 in the establishment of diplomatic relations. That year, China began dramatic under Deng Xiaoping, opening the country to foreign businesses.

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