RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - An upgrade of Taiwan's fleet of F-16s would provide essentially the same quality as new fighter jets, a U.S. government official said on Monday as Taiwan officials renewed a push for the latest model.
The Obama administration informally told lawmakers on Friday it would upgrade Taiwan's 140-plus existing F-16 A/B jets while deferring Taipei's request for the more advanced F-16 C/Ds.
The senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration would formally notify Congress of its decision on Wednesday. The official declined to confirm details of the package for Taiwan.
"Assuming the decision is to upgrade F-16 A/Bs, they will provide essentially the same quality as new F-16 C/D aircraft at a far cheaper price," the official said in New York.
At a conference in Virginia, Taiwan's deputy defense minister portrayed the Obama administration as yielding to China at Taipei's peril, pressing his government's request for 66 new F-16 multi-role fighter planes built by Lockheed Martin Corp.
"These years, China is showing stronger and stronger reaction to U.S.-Taiwan arms sales, and that (has) turned your country more wary with arms sales," Andrew Yang, the minister, told an annual U.S.-Taiwan defense industry conference running through Tuesday.
Beijing has registered double-digit growth in its military spending nearly every year in the past two decades, prompting the Pentagon to warn the military balance across the Taiwan Strait was shifting in China's favor.
Yang said later he intended no criticism of the Obama administration's arms sales policies overall. But he said the United States should "speed up" preparation of diesel-electric submarine design plans and "quickly consider" the five-year-old request for 66 F-16 C/Ds.
The Obama administration appears to have been stung by criticism over the proposal to upgrade the aircraft, which was first reported by the Washington Times newspaper last week.
The U.S. official sought to dispel any view that Washington was letting down Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China regards as a renegade province. Taiwan is the thorniest issue between the United States and China.
"First, the U.S. is profoundly committed to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and that commitment remains unwavering. Second, the scale and pace of defense article sales to Taiwan over the past two and a half years is unprecedented."
The F-16 issue highlights the role U.S. arms makers and their political backers play in the sensitive dealings between the world's two largest economies over Taiwan.
The U.S. government is obligated under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to provide for Taiwan's defense. No other country is supplying the island for fear of angering China, which is increasingly important in world economic, diplomatic and military affairs.
France and the Netherlands are among countries that have suffered economic and diplomatic retaliation for having armed Taiwan in the past.
Washington has balked since 2006 at releasing the F-16 C/D, which carries a more powerful engine, advanced cockpit controls and updated display and radar technology.
Yang said Taiwan's top military hardware needs were the new fighters plus diesel-electric submarines -- transfers that Beijing has suggested it opposes above all other arms supplies to Taiwan to date.
The new planes would replace aging F-5s "to maintain air superiority across the Taiwan Strait in the near future," Yang said in prepared comments distributed to reporters outside the closed-door conference hosted by the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council.
Paul Wolfowitz, chairman of the council and a former U.S. deputy defense secretary and former president of the World Bank, said withholding the new F-16 C/D models was short-sighted because "you can only keep an old plane flying for so long," referring to the F-5s.
The F-5s are nearly 40 years old and two of them crashed in Taiwan last week, killing three airmen.
"The point is that Taiwan needs more F-16s," said Dan Blumenthal, a former Pentagon China desk chief now at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank.
Beijing has declined to renounce the use of force to bring Taiwan into its fold despite steady progress in relations since President Ma Ying-jeou and his Koumintang party returned to power in 2008 after eight years in opposition.
In January 2010, President Barack Obama approved a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan left over from the administration of George W. Bush.
In response, China froze military-to-military ties and threatened sanctions against U.S. firms.
Arms sales advocates argue that Taiwan must maintain strong deterrent and defensive capabilities so it can negotiate with Beijing from a position of strength.
China's rise is "an opportunity and a threat to Taiwan and all China's neighbors," Yang said, calling on the United States to provide advanced technologies so Taiwan could become more self-reliant.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Paul Eckert in New York; Editing by John O'Callaghan