Taiwan leader renews call for US fighter jets

by Shaun Tandon Thu May 12

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou renewed his call Thursday on the United States to sell F-16 fighter jets to the island, saying he needed leverage as he pursues reconciliation with China.

Ma said he was committed to seeking weapons from the United States despite belt-tightening by his administration, which has raised defense spending at a slower pace than earlier planned since the global economic downturn.

In an address to a US think-tank, Ma pledged to move forward with his policy of improving relations with China, saying the island has benefited from his outreach to the mainland since taking office in 2008.

But Ma said: « The right leverage must be in place, otherwise Taiwan cannot credibly maintain an equal footing at the negotiating table. »

« We continue to urge the US to provide Taiwan with necessary defensive weaponry such as F-16s and diesel-powered submarines, » he told the Center for Strategic and International Studies by video-link from Taipei.

The United States last year approved $6.4 billion in weapons for Taiwan, including Patriot missiles and Black Hawk helicopters. But the package did not include fighter jets, which Taiwan believes are necessary to close the gap as China rapidly boosts its military budget.

China angrily protested the package, temporarily snapping off defense ties with the United States. Beijing considers Taiwan — where the mainland’s defeated nationalists fled in 1949 — to be a territory awaiting reunification.

A senior Taiwanese lawmaker, Lin Yu-fang, said Tuesday that Taiwan would delay buying weapons from the US package to save money as the island undergoes a costly shift from conscription to a professional military.

Ma said only that Taiwan wanted a « small but strong » military force and that he has made « adequate arrangements » both to buy weapons and to transform the military.

He acknowledged he has not met a goal of devoting three percent of GDP to military spending due to other priorities since the economic crisis.

« We will try in the future to catch up with that, but I can assure you we do have the resolve to defend ourselves, » he said.

Ma is seeking another term in January elections. The rival Democratic Progressive Party led Taiwan for eight years before Ma and has emphasized the island’s own identity, often clashing with Beijing.

Ma’s critics have denounced him for reaching a sweeping trade pact with China, saying that the landmark agreement weakens Taiwan’s de facto independence and may bring reunification by economic instead of military force.

But Ma said the trade pact helped Taiwan achieve growth of 10.82 percent last year — a 23-year high — and may paradoxically reduce dependence on China as other trading partners find it easier to do business with the island.

« We shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket. But we can’t really leave no eggs in one of the largest baskets of the world, » he said.

Ma said the stability in relations with China would also help Taiwan build its « soft power » as foreign companies drawn by the island’s location would see its safety, prosperity and high standard of education.

Ma also pledged a focus on foreign assistance. He said that Taiwanese people donated more than $200 million to Japan after its massive earthquake and tsunami, more than any other nation.

« This second line of defense aims to give Taiwan a higher moral ground in international politics, » he said.

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