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Taiwan urges U.S. to sell it F-16 jets

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Taiwan’s envoy urged the United States on Tuesday to clear the sale of advanced Lockheed Martin Corp F-16 fighter jets as soon as possible, putting the Bush administration in an awkward spot ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

Taiwan's U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets fly in formation while releasing flares during the annual Han Kuang military exercise at Suao, Ilan county, about 60 km (37 miles) southeast of Taipei May 16, 2007. REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV

The potential $4.9 billion deal for 66 advanced F-16 C/D models is strongly opposed by China, as are all U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Critics say the Bush administration has been stalling, at least until after the summer games starting August 8 that Bush is scheduled to attend.

“We hope that the U.S. administration will approve the requested sale as soon as possible,” Joseph Wu, the outgoing chief representative in Washington, told Reuters in an emailed reply to a query.

“We believe that Taiwan’s acquisition of additional F-16s ... will do much to enhance Taiwan’s air defense and at the same time improve stability across the Taiwan Strait,” he said.

Wu said it was also in U.S. interests, an apparent reference to the danger that a cross-straits conflict might draw in U.S. troops.

Wu, who is to leave in coming weeks, was speaking for the government of Taiwan, said Eddie Tsai, a spokesman for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, the de facto embassy.

The new F-16s would supplement 150 F-16A/B models sold to Taiwan by George W. Bush’s father, the first President Bush, in 1992.

Taiwan first asked to buy new F-16s last year after breaking a long partisan deadlock in parliament over arms purchases and approving substantial funding for the aircraft.

The Bush administration has refused to accept formal paperwork needed to process the request, according to the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, which represents about 100 companies doing business in Taiwan, including contractors such as Lockheed Martin.

TAIWAN RELATIONS ACT

In response, the State Department said the administration faithfully carries out the Taiwan Relations Act, a 1979 law under which the United States sells arms and services for Taiwan’s self-defense.

“There is an internal, interagency process for the U.S. government to consider sales to Taiwan,” said Gonzalo Gallegos, a department spokesman. “When the interagency process achieves a final decision for any specific arms sale we will notify Congress.”

Wu made his remarks after the business council, now chaired by Paul Wolfowitz, a former deputy secretary of defense under Bush, accused the administration of “blatantly” tampering with the U.S. arms sales process.

Rupert Hammond-Chambers, the council’s president, said in an interview that the Bush administration in effect had frozen eight potential arms deals sought by Taiwan valued at a total of more than $11 billion. Among these, he said, were Lockheed/ Raytheon Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile and anti-aircraft interceptors plus Black Hawk utility helicopters built by United Technologies Corp’s Sikorsky unit.

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are fraught with complications. They are all but required by the 1979 law that switched U.S. diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing. It says the president and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such sales “based solely on their judgment of the needs of Taiwan”.

China, which regards Taiwan as its own territory, opposes such sales as interference in its domestic affairs. Beijing vows to use force if necessary to bring Taiwan under mainland rule.

Asked last month about Taiwan’s request for F-16s, John Negroponte, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, told a Senate committee the administration was awaiting developments after the election of a new president, Ma Ying-jeou, sworn-in on May 20.

The request initially was stiff-armed amid Bush administration concern over independence-minded moves by former president Chen Shui-bian deemed provocative toward Beijing.

The United States has many reasons to avoid angering China, including the Beijing-hosted six-party talks aimed at rolling back and eventually scrapping North Korea’s nuclear materials and programs.

Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s No. 1 supplier by sales, “greatly respects Taiwan’s efforts to defend itself and appreciates Taiwan’s interest in new F-16s,” Tom Jurkowsky, a company spokesman, said in an emailed statement.

Richard Bush (no relation to President Bush), a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, said holding off on Taiwan’s F-16 request until after the Olympics was “a good way to balance our various interests.” The American Institute in Taiwan serves as the de facto U.S. embassy.

Reporting by Jim Wolf; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Carol Bishopric

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