WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Taiwan has renewed a drive to buy advanced U.S.-built F-16 fighter aircraft, confronting President Barack Obama with a delicate decision.
Detailing its arms shopping list for the first time since Obama took office, Taipei’s de facto embassy in Washington said its current fighter force was inadequate to a potential threat from China across the 110-mile- wide Taiwan Strait.
The largest part of Taiwan’s air force, F-5 fighters, have been in service for more than 34 years, said a spokesman for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.
“The planes now are obsolete and spare parts are difficult to obtain,” spokesman Vance Chang said in an email response to questions about Taiwan’s arms requests.
China, which views Taiwan as a rogue province, has built increasingly advanced fighters, the statement said, “therefore our air superiority capability is at a serious disadvantage.”
“Taiwan’s determination to defend itself is indisputable,” it added. Taiwan has been trying for 12 years to buy F-16 C/D models built by Lockheed Martin Corp of Bethesda, Maryland.
The U.S. government is required by a 1979 law to provide self-ruled Taiwan sufficient arms to defend itself.
Successive U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have managed the weapons flow to minimize fallout with China — a major trading partner and the biggest foreign holder of U.S. Treasury bonds.
In its final years, former President George W. Bush’s administration would not even accept a formal request for the advanced F-16s, said the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, which represents about 100 companies, including Lockheed Martin.
The United States “has an obligation to assist Taiwan to maintain a credible defense of its air space, which includes modern fighters,” said council president Rupert Hammond-Chambers.
Taiwan wants 66 F-16 C/Ds valued at up to $4.9 billion to bolster 150 F-16A/B models it bought in 1992.
The State Department had no immediate comment on the statement from TECRO, as the unofficial embassy is known.
Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary, and opposes U.S. arms sales as interference in its domestic affairs.
Ties have warmed since Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, replaced President Chen Shui-bian last May. Chen often angered Beijing by promoting formal independence for Taiwan.
In October, the Bush administration notified Congress of possible arms sales to Taiwan of up to $6.4 billion, including Patriot “Advanced Capability” antimissile batteries, Apache attack helicopters and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
“We were eager to achieve a golden mean — a robust package of arms sales that met Taiwan’s immediate defense needs but was not perceived in Beijing as undermining the progress in cross- strait relations,” said Dennis Wilder, senior director for East Asian affairs on Bush’s White House National Security Council.
“I believe we achieved that goal,” he added in an email response to Reuters.
TECRO, in its statement to Reuters, made clear Ma’s administration was still seeking UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters built by United Technologies Corp’s (UTX.N) Sikorsky unit and design work on modern diesel-electric submarines.
These two items were cleared for release to Taiwan by Bush as part of a landmark arms offer in April 2001, but left out of the October notification to Congress. The deals were held up for years, largely by partisan hurdles to funding in Taiwan.
Funds to start acquiring the work on submarines, Black Hawk helicopters and the F-16 C/Ds now have been approved by the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, TECRO said.
Wilder said the Bush administration had told Taiwan that it was not denying it any of the weapons approved in 2001, but would leave the decision to Obama.
“We wanted to leave the door open for the next U.S. administration to do its own review in consultation with Taiwan to decide on future arms sales,” he said.
Editing by Alan Elsner