Taiwanese Leader Hails Weapons Deal With U.S.

By Jane Rickards
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 5, 2008

TAIPEI, Taiwan, Oct. 4 -- Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou on Saturday welcomed U.S. plans to sell the island almost $6.5 billion in weaponry, a move that appeared to repair years of frayed ties between Taiwan and the administration.

The Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency said in a statement released Friday that it had notified Congress about the sale, which marks Taiwan's first purchase of the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 surface-to-air guided missile defense system.

"We think this announcement from the U.S. government is a sign that the past eight years of discord are over," Ma said in a statement.

The sale serves as a reminder that the Taiwan Strait remains one of Asia's potential flash points. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province with no right to a sovereign government and has threatened to invade in response to any moves toward independence. The United States, under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, has pledged to help Taiwan defend itself against any unprovoked Chinese attack.

The weapons sale, which also includes Apache helicopters and Harpoon missiles, comes as Taiwanese negotiators are working behind the scenes with China to arrange a visit by Chen Yunlin, the head of China's semiofficial agency negotiating with Taiwan, at the end of the month or in November.

Chen would be the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Taiwan since the Nationalists relocated to the island in 1949.

Ma, who was elected in March on a platform of detente with China, said Saturday that he still wants to develop cross-strait ties, and analysts said the sale was unlikely to derail Chen's visit.

George Tsai, a political scientist at Taipei's Chinese Culture University, said, "I think they understand the realities. I don't think this will upset Chen Yunlin's visit."

The package was proposed by the U.S. government in 2001. But lawmakers from Ma's Nationalist Party, who were in the opposition at the time, refused to approve procurement budgets for several years, saying the purchase was too costly.

After Taiwan finally approved the funding, senior U.S. officials placed a de facto freeze on arms sales to Taiwan for almost a year, observers said, because they were irritated by the wrangling and because they needed China's help in resolving international issues, such as persuading North Korea to relinquish nuclear weapons.

Since coming to power, Nationalist officials, including Ma, have worked at improving relations with the United States.

A Taiwanese defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Taiwan would continue to lobby for two items omitted from the package: 60 Black Hawk utility helicopters and a feasibility study to build diesel-electric submarines. Taiwan will also push the United States to sell it about 60 F-16 C/D fighters, the official said.

Andrew Yang, a military analyst with the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, said the sale, which the U.S. Congress must approve, was largely symbolic, because China has more than 1,000 missiles pointed at the island, and Taiwan's defensive capabilities remain limited.

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