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.
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 standing request for 66 new late-model Lockheed Martin Corp F-16 fighter aircraft, valued at $8.3 billion, in addition to the pending upgrade of its old F-16s sold in 1992.
Beijing's sustained investment in armed forces across from Taiwan continued 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 he "best bang for the buck at this time."
Taiwan also must focus more on exploiting its geographical advantages "to better protect high-value assets and render (any) mainland attacks more costly," he said.
EXPANDING U.S. DRIVE
Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for the region, faulted Beijing for failing to renounce the possible use of force against Taiwan, for instance if the island took steps seen by China as meant to block eventual unification.
China's armed deployments across from Taiwan "contradict Beijing's stated commitment to the peaceful handling of cross-Strait relations," he said.
Lavoy and Campbell, facing criticism from virtually all lawmakers present at the hearing for the delay in selling new F-16s, described an expanding U.S. drive to help offset China's growing military might with a greater U.S. presence in the region.
The Obama administration, for instance, is working to modernize the U.S. defense posture in Asia to be "more geographically distributed, politically sustainable and operationally resilient," Campbell testified.
"We need to step up our game in the Asia-Pacific region across the board," including efforts to promote trade, investment and strategic engagement, now that U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, he said.
A critical part involves enhanced security ties with Taiwan, Campbell said, referring to them as a "bedrock" of the relationship.
Military-to-military ties have strengthened since Ma Ying-jeou from the China-friendly Nationalist Party (KMT) became president in May 2008 and the United States plans to build on these, Lavoy said.
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."
Campbell said the Obama administration was actively exploring ways to raise the level of its meetings with Taiwan.
U.S. ties with Taiwan have been unofficial since 1979, when Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing. The United States is required by law to provide for Taiwan's defense.
Representative Gerald Connolly asked whether Beijing's oft-stated opposition to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan played any role "whatsoever" in the administration's decision to withhold new F-16s, at least for now.
"It did not," Campbell responded.
(Editing by Xavier Briand)