Mon, Mar 16, 2009 - Page 1 News List

Taiwan renews drive for advanced fighter aircraft

CATCHING UPSome defense specialists say that the military balance in the Taiwan Strait tipped in China’s favor in 2007. More, newer weapons are needed, fast

By Rich Chang  /  STAFF REPORTER, WITH REUTERS, WASHINGTON

Taiwan has renewed a drive to buy advanced US-built F-16 fighter aircraft, confronting US President Barack Obama with a delicate decision.

Detailing its arms shopping list for the first time since Obama took office, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) — Taiwan’s representative office in Washington — said its current fighter force was inadequate to a potential threat from China across the 177km-wide Taiwan Strait.

The largest part of Taiwan’s air force, F-5 fighters, have been in service for more than 34 years, a TECRO spokesman said.

“The planes now are obsolete and spare parts are difficult to obtain,” said TECRO spokesman Vance Chang (張鷹) in an e-mail response to questions about Taiwan’s arms requests.

China 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 said.

Taiwan has been trying for 12 years to buy F-16C/D models built by Lockheed Martin Corp of Bethesda, Maryland.

The US government is required by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to provide Taiwan sufficient arms to defend itself.

Successive US administrations have managed the weapons flow to minimize fallout with China — a major trading partner and the biggest foreign holder of US Treasury bonds.

In its final years, the administration of former US president George W. Bush would not even accept a formal request for the advanced F-16s, said the US-茅aiwan Business Council, which represents about 100 companies, including Lockheed Martin.

The US “has an obligation to assist Taiwan to maintain a credible defense of its air space, which includes modern fighters,” council president Rupert Hammond-Chambers said.

Taiwan wants 66 F-16C/Ds valued at up to US$4.9 billion to bolster 150 F-16A/B models it bought in 1992.

The US State Department had no immediate comment on the statement from TECRO.

Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary, and opposes US arms sales as interference in its domestic affairs.

In October, the Bush administration notified US Congress of possible arms sales to Taiwan of up to US$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 e-mail response to Reuters.

In its statement to Reuters, TECRO made clear President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration was still seeking UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters built by United Technologies Corp’s 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-16C/Ds now have been approved by the legislature, TECRO said.

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