(Adds U.S. comment on China ties, paragraphs 10-13)
TAIPEI, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said on Thursday the U.S. government was stalling in replying to Taiwan’s request for F-16 jet fighters because of displeasure from China, which claims sovereignty over the self-ruled island.
Taiwan is seeking a $4.9 billion deal for 66 advanced F-16s to modernise its military as China’s armed forces grow. The U.S. government has said it is reviewing Taiwan’s defence needs and has made no commitment to a sale.
“We still hope to acquire F-16 jet fighters to replace the ageing fighters we have, but so far we haven’t received a positive answer from the United States, partly because of the opposition from the Chinese,” Ma told reporters.
China has claimed self-ruled Taiwan as its own since 1949, when Mao Zedong’s forces won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists (KMT) fled to the island. Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.
The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China 30 years ago, recognising “one China”, though it remains Taiwan’s biggest ally and arms supplier and is obliged by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to help with its defence.
Since his election in 2008, Ma has sought to ease tension with China through trade and transit talks. But he has denounced the 1,000 to 1,500 short-range and medium-range missiles China is believed to have aimed at the island.
Taiwan first asked to buy new F-16s in 2007 after approving substantial funding for the aircraft.
China opposes all U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, a position Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu reaffirmed on Thursday, though without saying if Beijing had formally taken up the F-16s case with Washington.
“We adamantly oppose the United States, or any other country, selling weapons to Taiwan,” Ma told a regular news briefing.
The commanding officer of the U.S. aircraft carrier, USS George Washington, said in Hong Kong the United States wanted improved communications with the Chinese navy in the Pacific following minor skirmishes in the South China Sea.
Five times this year, Chinese vessels have confronted U.S. surveillance ships in Asian waters, the U.S. Defense Department said in May. China said the U.S. vessels had intruded into its territory and in August called on the United States to halt all air and sea surveillance.
“Some of the skirmishes might be a slight misunderstanding of ‘I don’t know what each other’s doing’,” said Captain David Lausman, who heads the 100,000-tonne flagship of the Seventh Fleet.
Lausman said improved bilateral naval ties could be brought about in “small steps” like co-operating on anti-piracy and rescue missions, rather than through big exercises alone.
(Reporting by Kevin Plumberg; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and James Pomfret in Hong Kong; Editing by Nick Macfie)
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