WASHINGTON (AFP) — The top US military commander in Asia acknowledged Wednesday that US arms sales to Taiwan had been frozen, amid warming ties between Beijing and Taipei and concerns expressed by China.
"There have been no significant arms sales from the United States to Taiwan in relatively recent times," said Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of the Hawaii-based US Pacific Command.
Keating told a forum of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation he was aware of a freeze on US arms sales to Taiwan, saying it was "administration policy."
"I would not be well positioned to speak for the State Department or the National Security Council or White House," he added.
Officials who made the decision "reconciled Taiwan's military posture, China's current military posture and strategy that indicates there is no pressing, compelling need for, at this moment, arms sales to Taiwan," he said.
Taiwan experts said Keating was the first official to confirm the freeze following reports last month that senior US officials were holding up an 11 billion dollar weapons package and delivery of dozens of F-16 jet fighters for Taiwan, possibly until after President George W. Bush leaves office.
The Bush administration must give Congress formal notification for the approval of weapons sales to foreign governments, but the Washington Post recently cited unnamed sources saying Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley had frozen the deal.
The reports appeared as China and Taiwan began their first formal talks in a decade in June, the latest step in a rapprochement that is likely to see the long-time rivals quickly deepen trade and tourism ties.
Beijing at the same time had told the United States to permanently end arm sales to Taiwan.
"China firmly opposes the sale of US weapons to Taiwan and firmly opposes the military relations maintained between the United States and Taiwan," foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said last month.
Lieutenent General Zhang Qinsheng, a senior commander of the People's Liberation Army, who met Keating about two weeks ago at the Pacific Command, had also expressed concerns about the weapons sales.
But a senior US military official said Zhang's concerns did not prompt the freeze on arms sales to the island, adding "Washington's move was independent of those concerns."
Keating said he and Zhang agreed that the US and Chinese militaries consider plans to conduct a bilateral humanitarian disaster relief exercise as early as next year.
Taiwan has been governed separately since the end of a 1949 civil war, but Beijing has repeatedly threatened to invade should the island declare formal independence.
Washington has been the island's leading arms supplier, despite switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who took over from independence-leaning Chen Shui-bian this year, had said the island needed to secure defensive weapons from the United States despite warming ties with China.
Some US experts said Washington's freeze left Ma with "no cover" in his talks to boost ties with Beijing.
"Ma has urgently requested the United States to provide these arms in the hope that they would reinforce an impression of a strong US-Taiwan security relationship and thereby encourage China to accept the island as it is, not as a part of China," John Tkacik, a former State Department China expert, told AFP.
"But the Bush administration, by ignoring Taiwan's request, ensures that Taiwan deals with Beijing from a position of weakness," he said.
"It's clear to me that the Bush administration has abandoned all commitments to defend Taiwan's democracy," said Tkacik, now with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The last time the Bush administration notified the US Congress about potential arms sales to Taiwan was in November last year, for a missile deal worth 939 million dollars.
Earlier, in September, the Pentagon notified its intention to sell the island 12 P-3C Orion anti-submarine warfare aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles worth several billion dollars.
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