By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said on Wednesday the United States was responding positively to Taipei’s requests for new arms sales to bolster its defences in the face of growing pressure from China.
Speaking during a stopover in Hawaii at the end of a Pacific tour, Tsai told Washington’s Heritage Foundation think tank via videolink that Taiwan had submitted new requests to the United States for M-1 Abrams tanks and F-16B fighter jets.
These, she said, “would greatly enhance our land and air capabilities, strengthen military morale and show to the world the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defence.”
The United States has no formal ties with Taiwan but is bound by law to help provide it with the means to defend itself and is its main source of arms. On Sunday, Washington sent Navy and Coast Guard ships through the narrow strait separating the island from the mainland, part of an increase in the frequency of U.S. movement through the strategic waterway to show support for Taipei.
Tsai said mounting pressure from China for Taiwan to accept a “one country, two systems model” and its attempts to alter the cross-straits status quo underscored the need for Taiwan to “increase our self defence and deterrence capabilities.”
“Fortunately … Taiwan does not stand alone,” she said. “The United States’ commitment to Taiwan is stronger than ever.”
Tsai said she felt the process of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan had become less politicized, adding: “We are able to have frank discussions with the U.S. on the right equipment for Taiwan’s defence and the U.S. is responding positively to our request.”
She said big-ticket defence items would be managed though a special budget and Taiwan’s regular defence budget would “increase based on challenges coming across the strait.”
Tsai’s Pacific tour has come amid heightened tension between Taipei and Beijing, which has stepped up diplomatic and military pressure to assert its sovereignty over Taiwan.
China suspects Tsai and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party of pushing for the island’s formal independence.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said in January that Beijing reserved the right to use force to bring Taiwan under its control, but would strive to achieve peaceful “reunification.”
Beijing has regularly sent military aircraft and ships to circle the island on drills in the past few years and has heaped pressure on Taiwan internationally, including whittling by down its few remaining diplomatic allies.
Tsai stressed that Taiwan sought positive relations with Beijing, but China needed to talk without preconditions. She said developments in Hong Kong were not encouraging.
“One country, two systems will become just one country,” she said. “The two systems do not seem to be respected that much. So I think the experience of Hong Kong teaches the Taiwanese a lot.”
Tsai said earlier this month that Taiwan has sent a request to the United States to buy an unspecified number of F-16s, a move that could add another irritant to Beijing-Washington ties.
Last week, U.S. China hawk Peter Navarro, director of the White House’s Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, wrote in the New York Times that Taiwan may soon buy 108 M-1 tanks.
Tsai, who faces re-election in January, has repeatedly called for international support to defend Taiwan’s democracy in the face of China’s renewed threats.
Her Hawaii stopover, a customary practice for Taiwanese presidents, has drawn criticism from Beijing.
This week, Republican and Democratic U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation seeking to boost Taiwan ties, which among other things would direct the Pentagon to make efforts to include Taiwan in military training exercises and expresses congressional support for regular U.S. arms sales.
Tsai visited three diplomatic allies in the Pacific, part of an effort to prevent Taiwan’s 17 remaining allies from switching allegiance to China. Four of the six Pacific island nations aligned with Taiwan have elections this year.
On Monday, Nauru’s parliament passed a resolution supporting Taiwan’s democracy and opposing Beijing’s “one-China” policy after Tsai made a speech there. She also visited Palau and the Marshall Islands during her eight-day trip in which she offered support to the agriculture sectors of the island nations.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee; Editing by James Dalgleish)