By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration is weighing fresh arms sales to Taiwan as part of a sweeping effort to deter any Chinese attack on the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own, administration officials told Congress on Tuesday.
Such supplies would be on top of plans sent to Congress on September 21 to sell Taiwan $5.85 billion in new hardware and defense services, including upgrades for Taiwan's 145 F-16 A/B fighter aircraft, bought in 1992.
Beijing deems Taiwan arms sales a grave interference in its domestic affairs and the biggest obstacle to improved relations between the world's two largest economies.
"We are consulting with Taiwan on a full range of capabilities so they're aware of the threat and they can undertake the defensive preparations," Peter Lavoy, acting assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, testified before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
Lavoy declined to discuss details of a potential follow-up sale. But he said the administration was still considering Taipei's five-year-old request for 66 new late-model Lockheed Martin Corp F-16 C/D fighters, valued at $8.3 billion, in addition to the pending upgrade of its F-16 A/B models.
Beijing's sustained investment in armed forces across from Taiwan continues to shift the military balance in its favor across the Taiwan Strait, he said.
China has deployed as many as 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles and growing numbers of medium-range ballistic missiles plus land-attack cruise missiles opposite the island, Lavoy added.
The planned F-16 retrofit, he said, would provide "real and immediate" contributions to Taiwan's security and amounted to the "best bang for the buck at this time."
The United States will continue to build military-to-military ties with Taiwan, Lavoy said, "to ensure Taiwan has the ability to defend itself today and in the future."
EXPANDING U.S. DRIVE
Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for the region, faulted Beijing for failing to renounce the possible use of force to bring Taiwan into its fold, for instance if the island took steps seen by China as meant to block unification.
China's armed deployments across from Taiwan "contradict Beijing's stated commitment to the peaceful handling of cross-Strait relations," he said.
The administration faced criticism from virtually all lawmakers present at the hearing for its delay in selling new F-16s even as Lavoy and Campbell outlined an expanding U.S. drive to help offset China's growing military might with a greater U.S. presence in the region.
"Taiwan needs our help," said committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican. "China is on the march in Asia, and its primary target remains democratic Taiwan."
The panel's top Democrat, Howard Berman, said Taiwan needed late-model F-16s to defend itself from China "and it needs them soon."
Campbell said the Obama administration was updating the U.S. defense posture in Asia to be "more geographically distributed, politically sustainable and operationally resilient."
The Obama administration also is actively exploring ways to raise the level of its meetings with Taiwan, he said.
U.S. ties with Taiwan have been unofficial since 1979, when Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing. The United States is required by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to provide sufficient arms for Taiwan's defense.
Under President Barack Obama, Campbell said, "we have not only improved relations with both China and Taiwan, but this approach has also contributed to historic levels of cross-Strait stability."
Representative Gerald Connolly asked whether Beijing's stiff opposition to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan played any role "whatsoever" in the decision to withhold new F-16s.
"It did not," Campbell responded.
(Editing by Xavier Briand and Mohammad Zargham)