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China paper tells U.S. not to play with fire over Taiwan

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's top official newspaper warned on Friday that "madmen" on Capitol Hill who want the United States to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan were playing with fire and could pay a "disastrous price," as the Obama administration nears a decision on a sale.

The People's Daily, the main paper of China's ruling Communist Party, said the United States should excise the "cancer" of the law which authorizes Washington's sale of weapons to the self-ruled island of Taiwan that China considers its own territory.

Taiwan's biggest ally and arms supplier, the United States is committed under a 1979 law to supply it with the weapons it needs to maintain a "sufficient self-defense capability."

Taiwan hopes to buy 66 late-model F-16 aircraft from the United States, a sale potentially valued at more than $8 billion and intended to phase out its remaining F-5 fighters.

The arms sale debate has been building steam in the United States, with U.S. Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, where Lockheed Martin Corp manufactures the F-16, saying killing the sale would cost valuable U.S. jobs.

"At present, some madmen on Capitol Hill are making an uproar about consolidating and expanding this cancer," the People's Daily said in a commentary, adding these politicians were "wildly arrogant."

"If these crazy ideas come to fruition, what kind of predicament will Sino-U.S. relations find themselves in?" the paper wrote.

The commentary appeared under a pen name "Zhong Sheng," a name suggesting the meaning the "voice of China," which is sometimes used to reflect higher-level opinion.

While China and the United States have sparred over everything from trade, Tibet and the internet over the past few years, ties have improved drastically following President Hu Jintao's visit to the United States in January.

Relations between the world's two largest economies have "not easily reached the point where they are today, and need to be cherished and protected to the greatest extent," the commentary wrote.

"Some people want to turn back the tide of history, but they must be clear about the disastrous price they will have to pay," it added.

"A word of advice for those muddleheaded congressmen: don't go too far, don't play with fire."

U.S. President Barack Obama is due by October 1 to say what, if anything, his administration plans to do to boost Taiwan's aging air force.

Beijing strongly opposes the potential arms sale to the island it deems an illegitimate breakaway province. But Taiwan says it needs the jets to counter China's growing military strength.

The request for the new F-16s has been pending informally since 2006. Taiwan in 2009 also requested an upgrade to its 146 old F-16 A/B models. Then-President George H.W. Bush sold Taiwan its first F-16s in 1992.

Analysts have told Reuters a full package of new jets is unlikely to be approved by the Obama administration, but that it may instead offer Taiwan an upgrade on existing F-16A/B jets worth up to $4.2 billion.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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