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U.S. sees China fallout from Taiwan arms, no breach

Sep 23, 2011, 5:21 p.m.
A F-16 fighter jet takes off on a highway used as an emergency landing strip during the Han Kuang military exercise in Madou, Tainan, southern Taiwan, April 12, 2011. REUTERS/Nicky Loh

By Phil Stewart and Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States expects some fraying of relations with China over its $5.3 billion plan to upgrade Taiwan's F-16 fleet but not as "shrill" a reaction as if it had met the request for new fighter jets, the top U.S. military commander in the region told Reuters on Friday.

China has condemned the planned retrofit of Taiwan's 145 F-16 A/B fighters sold in 1992. But it has not yet announced any retaliatory steps.

"We anticipate that there will be effects as a consequence of this. We aren't sure what those details will be," Admiral Robert Willard, head of the U.S. military's Pacific Command, said in an interview.

"Several of us have standing invitations to China later in the year and we'll see what happens. I've been canceled before."

China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province subject to unification with the mainland by force if necessary.

The U.S. offer to Taiwan includes sales of advanced air-to-air missiles, guided bombs and sophisticated radar equipment.

"I'm certain that had there been any sales over and above what this Taiwan arms sales package contained that the response would have been more shrill," Willard said.

China's People's Liberation Army suspended ties with the U.S. military for most of 2010 after the previous, $6.4 billion U.S. arms package for Taiwan, adding to tensions that have included U.S. pressure on China to loosen controls on its currency.

Willard played down the prospects of such fallout from the $5.85 billion arms package that Congress was formally notified of on Wednesday, including a five-year, $500 million extension of training for Taiwan's F-16 pilots, and spare parts.

He cited a conversation he said he had with a senior Chinese general the day before the long-anticipated announcement of the arms sale. General Fan Changlong, Jinan region military commander, had been visiting Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii.

"We talked about a range of issues and as always Taiwan and Taiwan arms sales came up in the course of the meeting. But it came up in a pretty professional way and he didn't dwell on it much," Willard said.

Asked whether he expected any major rupture, Willard said, "I think the Chinese are likely to continue to try and maintain the appropriate level of dialogue between the two nations -- at least I would hope they'd do that."

"Because it's in our best interests and I think they recognize the value of that as well," he said.

WON'T TIP POWER BALANCE

The United States switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979. But it is obligated by the Taiwan Relations Act to supply the self-ruled island sufficient arms for its defense.

Since 2006, Taiwan has requested 66 F-16C/D models, which have a more advanced engine and combat capability than the pre-upgrade A/B models. It has sought the upgrades as well to help deter any Chinese attack.

Willard rejected any suggestion Washington withheld the new aircraft in deference to Beijing. The arms package was significant, he said, even though he described it as unlikely to tip the cross-Strait power balance in Taiwan's favor.

"If you look at the amassed combat power cross-Strait and what's essentially pointing at Taiwan today, there's a pretty large delta there that I don't think these kind of defense articles that are being provided in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act is going to overcome," he said.

The Pentagon, in its latest report to Congress last month, said the China-Taiwan balance of military force "continues to shift in Beijing's favor." China had up to 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles deployed to units opposite Taiwan as of last December, it said.

(Editing by Peter Cooney)

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