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

Despite nearly three years of warming relations with mainland China, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou pressed his case for continued U.S. weapons sales to the island, including sales of advanced fighter jets, saying that Taiwan needs to negotiate with Beijing from a position of strength.

Amber and MaAmid warming relations with China, Taiwan’s president seeks more U.S. arms

The Washington Post

By Keith B. Richburg

Special correspondent Amber Phillips (formerly Parcher) contributed to this report.

Friday, February 18, 2011; A09

TAIPEI, TAIWAN – Despite nearly three years of warming relations with mainland China, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou pressed his case Thursday for continued U.S. weapons sales to the island, including sales of advanced fighter jets, saying that Taiwan needs to negotiate with Beijing from a position of strength.

Ma, speaking in an interview at the presidential palace here, said Taiwan needs new F-16C/D fighter jets to modernize its fleet, as well as upgrades and replacement parts for its aging F-16A/B fighters. The Pentagon is still studying the request. Past U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have infuriated the mainland Chinese government, leading last year to a suspension of military-to-military contacts between Washington and Beijing.

Taiwan “is a sovereign state,” Ma said. “While we negotiate with the mainland, we hope to carry out such talks with sufficient self-defense capabilities and not negotiate out of fear.”

Ma said his government opposes the use of military force to resolve disputes across the Taiwan Strait. “However,” he added, “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 cross-strait relationship has been “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, and tourism has boomed. Last year, the two sides signed their first economic cooperation agreement, allowing a variety of tariff-free goods to flow across the strait.

Ma’s push for direct economic ties and warmer relations with Taiwan’s erstwhile enemy starkly reverses the approach of his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, who had angered leaders in Beijing with actions they interpreted as inching Taiwan toward independence.

As part of that policy rollback, Ma last week urged Taiwanese public officials to refer to the other side of the Taiwan Strait as “the mainland,” rather than “China,” noting that Taiwan’s constitution calls for recognition that there is only one China.

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province that must be reunited with the mainland, and it keeps more than 1,000 missiles on its eastern coast aimed at the island. Taiwan has been self-governing since the end of China’s civil war in 1949, when 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 Taiwan-based companies having invested more than $100 billion on the Chinese mainland, Ma said the next phase of his negotiations will focus on protections for those businesses and their assets.

His political opponents here, including the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), 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 with China, not talking politics.

“Both sides have agreed to start from economics, and political issues are not the priority,” Ma said.

Taiwan was rocked by a spy scandal this month when the Defense Ministry announced the detention of a senior army officer, Maj. Gen. Lo Hsien-che, on suspicion of having leaked military secrets to China for more than six years. Lo is the most senior military officer in 50 years to be accused of spying for China, and his detention in late January raised fears that sensitive U.S. military secrets might have been passed to Beijing.

In the interview, Ma said his government is trying to determine precisely what military intelligence was leaked to mainland China and whether Lo had any accomplices. He expressed regret and sought to assure the United States that it could trust Taiwan with sensitive information.

“This is a very serious case that we deeply regret and which has put us on alert,” Ma said.

Some of Ma’s critics here said the spy case showed that despite Ma’s outreach efforts, China remains hostile to Taiwan. They said that China has increased the number of its missiles aimed at Taiwan over the past few years and noted the Chinese military’s recent test flight of its new J-20 stealth fighter.

“The so-called warming up [of ties] is just a smokescreen,” said Lai I-chung, foreign policy director of the Taiwan Thinktank, which is close to the main opposition party. “The military buildup against Taiwan continues unabated.”

In the hour-long interview, conducted in Chinese with a government interpreter, Ma spoke at length about political reform in China, which he noted has lagged far behind the pace of China’s economic reforms of the past 30 years. Because Taiwan came through its own period of authoritarian rule to emerge as a vibrant democracy beginning in the late 1980s, Ma said, Taiwan could offer lessons to the mainland.

“Naturally, we hope that the mainland, as it interacts with us, can gradually become free and democratic,” Ma said. “Of course, we know that this is not an easy task.”

Asked whether mainland China’s new leadership, under presumed next president Xi Jinping, might more aggressively pursue political reform, Ma responded, in English, “We hope so.”

The elevation of Xi, now vice president, is expected in 2012, and Ma’s term also ends that year. But in the interview, Ma said for the first time that he intends to seek a second term.

“When I ran for president four years ago, my political plans were intended to be accomplished over eight years’ time,” Ma said. “We need a longer time frame to realize our platform.”

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