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Taiwan seeks new warplanes from U.S. as tension with China mounts

Taipei, Taiwan -- Taiwan has submitted an official request to purchase new fighter jets from the United States to "counter current enemy threats," the island's deputy defense minister said Thursday. The request comes as Chinese leader Xi Jinping has used increasingly strident rhetoric toward Taiwan, a self-governed island which split from the mainland during a civil war in 1949.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and maintains that the two sides must ultimately be reunified.

American arms sales to Taiwan have long raised Beijing's ire. While the U.S. cut formal ties with Taiwan in 1979 in order to forge a relationship with Beijing, the two continue to maintain robust unofficial military and diplomatic ties. Those relations are underpinned by the Taiwan Relations Act, which requires the U.S. to ensure that Taiwan has the ability to defend itself.

Xi warned in a January address that he would not rule out the use of force against Taiwanese independence activities. The island's democratically elected, independence-leaning leader, Tsai Ing-wen, has opposed threats to self-rule.

President Trump's relationship with China has been tense, and got off to a rocky start when Mr. Trump broke with the United States' long-standing "one China" diplomatic policy by accepting a direct phone call from the Taiwanese leader soon after his election.

China's foreign minister described the call as a "little trick" by Taiwan, and Beijing filed an official complaint with the White House, which was still inhabited at the time by President Barack Obama.  

U.S.-China tensions rise over trade war and Taiwan

Since then, as he engages Beijing in high-stakes trade negotiations, Mr. Trump has reaffirmed his administration's commitment to the one China policy. Early in 2017 Mr. Trump spoke to Xi on the phone and the White House said after the call that he had agreed "at the request of President Xi" to honor the policy, which requires Washington to maintain only unofficial ties with China's rival.

But later that year the U.S. again irked China by announcing the approval of new arms sales to Taiwan worth a total of $1.4 billion, the first such deal with the self-governing island since Mr. Trump took office.

In January of this year, with tension mounting between Taiwan and the China, the Taiwanese military announced a series of large-scale military drills to defend against a "possible Chinese invasion."

A report released last year by a panel of former U.S. security officials and military experts warned that America's military capabilities, relative to the threats faced by the country, had diminished significantly.

Report warns U.S. could lose a war against China or Russia

"If the United States had to fight Russia in a Baltic contingency or China in a war over Taiwan," the report said, "Americans could face a decisive military defeat."

Taiwanese Deputy Defense Minister Shen Yi-ming, who announced the fighter jet purchase request at a news conference, said the goal is to provide pilots with more sophisticated equipment, in part to "demonstrate our determination and ability to defend ourselves."

Huang Wen-chi, the Taiwan defense ministry's director of strategic planning, said the jets could be anything from F-15s, F-18s and F-16s to cutting-edge F-35 stealth fighters, "as long as it meets our combat needs."

"We didn't mention any of these models in our request," Huang said. "It will depend on what models the U.S. proposes to us, and then we will choose."

Taiwan Military
A team of Taiwan Air Force Mirage 2000 fighter jets slide during a military exercise in Hsinchu, northern of Taiwan, Jan. 16, 2019. AP