June 4, 2016 / 6:15 AM / 4 years ago

Taiwan's new president, on naval visit, champions local defense industry

YILAN, Taiwan (Reuters) - Taiwan is determined to build a local defense industry, the island’s new president, Tsai Ing-wen, said on Saturday as she toured a naval base and took a ride on a homemade 600-ton warship.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen waves her hand as she boards the nation's first domestically built stealth-missile 500-ton Tuo Jiang twin-hull corvette at Suao Naval Base in Yilan, Taiwan June 4, 2016. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Taiwan, isolated diplomatically and reliant on the United States as its only arms supplier, has struggled to maintain modern military wares in the face of China’s growing might across the 180 km-wide Taiwan Strait to its west.

Taiwan’s military is looking to build its own submarines and next generation jet trainers, and its navy has begun programs to build minesweepers, support ships, and small stealthy warships.

Constrained by budgets and approvals required in arms sales from the United States, the government hopes that building a home-grown defense industry will increase technological know-how, create jobs and boost economic growth.

Defeated Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war with Mao Zedong’s Communists, and the island has been self-ruled since. China still deems Taiwan a wayward province, however, to be taken back by force if necessary, especially if it begins taking concrete steps toward independence.

Beijing distrusts Tsai and her ruling, independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, which overturned eight years of China-friendly Nationalists rule in landslide January elections.

“Let defense needs become the driving force of industrial upgrading and transformation,” Tsai told a military audience at a naval base in northeastern Taiwan.

She had just been to sea on the 600-ton Tuo Jiang, Taiwan’s first homemade, twin-hulled corvette.

“This new Tuo Jiang vessel represents our determination to be autonomous in our defense,” she said.

The small warship, built by Taiwan’s Lung Teh Shipbuilding Co, is designed to be used for stealth missions and was delivered to the navy at the end of 2014.

Since taking office two weeks ago, Tsai has been visiting military bases as Taiwan’s first woman commander-in-chief.

(This story corrects to give Taiwan president’s full name on 1st reference, paragraph 1, direction of Taiwan in relation to China, paragraph 2)

Reporting by J.R. Wu; Editing by Tom Hogue

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