May 13, 2020 / 10:00 AM / 14 days ago

Focus on COVID-19 battle, France tells China after Taiwan warning

BEIJING/PARIS (Reuters) - France dismissed Chinese warnings on Wednesday about selling arms to self-ruled Taiwan, saying it was implementing existing deals and that Beijing should focus on battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

FILE PHOTO: Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian attends a news conference in Beijing, China April 8, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

China’s foreign ministry warned Paris over a contract for Taiwan, which is planning to buy weapons from Paris as part of an upgrade to a French-made warship fleet bought 30 years ago.

China says Taiwan is part of “one China”, and that this principle must be accepted by any country with which it has diplomatic relations. Arms sales to Taiwan are always highly sensitive and regularly prompt a strong reaction from Beijing.

The French foreign ministry responded by saying it followed a “one China” policy as agreed with Beijing in 1994 and continued to urge both sides to hold dialogue.

“Within this context France respects the contractual commitments it made with Taiwan and has not changed its position since 1994,” the ministry said in a statement. “Facing the COVID-19 crisis, all our attention and efforts should be focused on battling the pandemic.”

The timing of the dispute is awkward for Paris, which has ordered millions of face masks from China because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Last month, the French foreign ministry summoned China’s ambassador over posts and tweets by the embassy defending Beijing’s response to the pandemic and criticising the West’s handling of the outbreak.

“COMBAT NEEDS”

Taiwan is mostly equipped with U.S.-made weapons, but in 1991 France sold Taiwan six Lafayette frigates, to China’s anger. France also sold Taiwan 60 Mirage fighter jets in 1992.

Taiwan said last month it was seeking to buy equipment from France to upgrade the ships’ missile interference system.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China resolutely opposed any arms sales to Taiwan.

“We have already expressed our serious concern to France,” he told a daily news briefing. “We again urge the French side to abide by the one China principle and withdraw the arms sale plan to Taiwan to avoid harming Sino-French relations.”

Taiwan’s Defence Ministry quoted the navy as saying it was following related procurement regulations for the arm purchase to meet its “combat needs”. It declined further comment.

Taiwan media reported that Taiwan was proposing to spend around T$800 million ($26.8 million) on the DAGAIE missile interference system from French firm DCI-DESCO.

Taiwan says it needs to upgrade its armed forces to deal with a growing threat from China, which has stepped up military drills near the democratic island.

China describes Taiwan as its most sensitive and important territorial issue, and has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control. Taiwan has shown no interest in being ruled by autocratic China.

Reporting by Gabriel Crossley and John Irish; Additional reporting by Yimou Lee in Taipei; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie and Tim Heritage

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