Taiwan tries to expedite Black Hawk purchase

Singapore
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Taiwan's defence ministry has set aside an initial $230 million from its latest budget to purchase 60 Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. Its officials hope that the Obama administration will give the deal a nod by the end of this year.

The Bush administration cleared the request in 2001 as part of a wider agreement, but these were not included in a $6.5 billion arms package that Washington approved last October. That package included the sale of 30 Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters, upgrades to four Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning and control system aircraft and spare parts for Taiwan's Lockheed F-16A/B and Northrop F-5 fighters.

Taipei, however, is more optimistic after the USA said in March that Lockheed Martin would refurbish 12 surplus P-3C maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft for Taiwan as part of the 2001 deal. The aircraft would be fitted with new avionics and life-extension kits, with the first P-3C scheduled for delivery in 2012 and the rest by 2015. The $1.3 billion contract includes support, maintenance, spares and other services.

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That gives Taiwanese officials hope that a Black Hawk deal will be part of a review of the island's defence requirements, which it is likely to discuss with Washington by mid-2009. A sale would test President Barack Obama's approach to China, Taiwan and east Asia politics in general.

Taipei says that sales bolster its defences against mainland China, which has regarded the island as a renegade province since their split in 1949 and threatens to attack if Taiwan declares independence.

Washington is committed to helping Taiwan's defence, but it is also wary of antagonising China, an increasingly important strategic and economic partner. Beijing opposes Washington's arms sales to Taiwan, and last year said that they "grossly interfered in China's internal affairs, endangered Chinese national security, and disturbed the peaceful development of cross-strait relations".

However, observers point out that aircraft like the Black Hawk are mainly defensive weapons and add that Beijing does not have much leeway to complain in this regard. "China will protest if the Black Hawk deal goes through, but it will be hard to make too much noise about that. It cannot expect the USA to stand by and not do anything for Taiwan," says one long-time observer.

Taiwan, however, is finding it harder to persuade the Washington to sell 66 Lockheed Martin F-16C/D fighters. Taipei wants them to bolster its air force's ageing Dassault Mirage 2000-5s, indigenous Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation F-CK-1A/Bs, and Lockheed F-16A/Bs. However, Taiwan's parliamentary speaker said last month that Washington was refusing to budge on the issue and that further progress was unlikely this year. "F-16s will definitely rock Sino-US relations and I doubt that the Obama administration will push things that far," says the observer.