Amid warming relations with China, Taiwan's president seeks more U.S. arms

Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 8:36 AM

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Despite nearly three years of warming relations across the narrow Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou on Thursday pressed his case for continued American weapons sales to the island, including advanced U.S.-made fighter jets, saying Taiwan needs to negotiate with China from a position of strength.

Ma, in an interview, said Taiwan needed both new F-16C/D fighter jets to modernize its fleet, and also upgrades to its existing F-16A/B class fighters, which are aging and in need of replacement parts. The Pentagon is still studying the request, and past U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have infuriated the mainland Chinese government, last year leading to a suspension of military-to-military contacts between Washington and Beijing.

Taiwan "is a sovereign state," Ma said in an interview at the presidential palace here. "While we negotiate with the mainland, we hope to carry out such talks with sufficient self-defense capabilities and not negotiate out of fear."

"We oppose the use of military force to resolve cross-strait disputes," Ma said. "However, this is not to say that we cannot maintain a military capability necessary for Taiwan's security."

Ma said that during his term, which began in May 2008, the relationship between Taiwan and mainland China "is the most stable of any time in 60 years." Since he came to office, China and Taiwan have established direct air and sea links and mail service, tourism has boomed, and last year the two sides signed their first-ever economic cooperation agreement allowing a range of tariff free goods to flow across the Strait.

Ma's policy of pursuing direct economic ties and warmer relations with mainland China, Taiwan's erstwhile enemy, is a stark reversal from the policies of his predecessor Chen Shui-bian. Chen angered Beijing's leaders with actions they considered provocative and inching Taiwan toward toward independence.

As part of that rollback of his predecessor's policies, Ma last week called for all public officials to refer to the other side of the Taiwan Strait as "the mainland," as opposed to "China." He said the semantics are dictated by Taiwan's constitution, which calls for recognition that there is only one China.

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province that must be reunited with the mainland and keeps more than a thousand missiles on its eastern coast aimed toward the island. Taiwan has governed itself since the end of China's civil war in 1949, when Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fled here with his defeated army and established a rival government to Mao Zedong's Communist Party on the mainland.

With 70,000 Taiwanese companies now investing more than $100 billion on the Chinese mainland, Ma said the next phase of his negotiations will focus on protections for those businessmen and their assets.

His political opponents here, including the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, have accused Ma of wanting to launch political reunification talks with China that might jeopardize the island's de facto independent status. Some fear he might have already negotiated political concessions as part of the trade deal.

"We are asking whether there are any political conditions attached to this process," said Tsai Ing-wen, chairman of the DPP and a likely presidential candidate next year.

But Ma said his interest now was in cementing economic ties to China, not talking politics.

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