WASHINGTON — US lawmakers across party lines stepped up pressure Thursday on President Barack Obama to sell F-16 jet fighters to Taiwan, with some accusing the administration of showing deference to China.
"With over 1,600 missiles pointed directly across the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan needs the means to defend itself from the threats and intimidation," said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Taiwan needs the next generation of F-16 fighter jets now in order to protect its skies," she said at a committee hearing.
Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congresswoman from Florida and outspoken critic of Beijing, said she feared that some US officials wanted to weaken relations with Taiwan as part of an effort to work with a rising China.
"This would be a terrible mistake which would have far-reaching ramifications on how the US treats its democratic allies -- its friends," she said.
Representative Howard Berman, the top lawmaker on the committee from Obama's Democratic Party, said the military balance was shifting in China's favor. He quoted a Pentagon assessment that many of Taiwan's nearly 400 combat aircraft were no longer operationally capable.
"Taiwan urgently needs new tactical fighters. I encourage the administration to work closely with Congress in meeting our obligations," she said.
China considers Taiwan -- where the mainland's defeated nationalists fled in 1949 -- to be a province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary. The United States only recognizes Beijing as China's legitimate government.
The US Congress is a stronghold of support for Taiwan. It approved a 1979 law that requires the administration to provide Taiwan with sufficient weapons for self-defense. Last month, 45 senators -- nearly half the body -- wrote to Obama seeking an expedited sale of the F-16s.
Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou has worked to repair relations with China since taking office in 2008 but has also pressed for the F-16s and diesel-powered submarines.
The United States last year approved $6.4 billion in other weapons for Taiwan, including Patriot missiles and Black Hawk helicopters. China strongly condemned the move and cut off military ties with the United States, although relations resumed months afterward.
Citing scheduling conflicts, Obama administration officials did not testify at the hearing, leading to some harsh criticism from lawmakers.
Representative David Rivera, a Republican, said that the administration was "kowtowing" to China and "has clearly been pressured by the Chinese to control Taiwan and Taiwan policy in every way possible."
But Democratic Representative Gerry Connolly cautioned that charges of the United States abandoning Taiwan were overwrought.
"Rethinking policy is one thing; abandonment is another," Connolly said. "No one is talking about that."
While lawmakers were unanimous in their general support for Taiwan, some took a different tone on Taiwan's fractious politics.
Eni Faleomavaega, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on East Asia, supported F-16 sales but also embraced Ma's efforts to improve relations with the mainland through trade and people exchanges.
"I believe we should do everything we can to make sure this policy works so that US troops are not called upon to resolve any unnecessary conflict between Taipei and Beijing," he said.
But Republican Steve Chabot lashed out at the treatment of Ma's predecessor, Chen Shui-bian. The former president, who often irritated China by pushing for Taiwan's separate identity, is serving 17 years and six months in prison on two convictions of bribery, with more trials pending.
"To me there is the scent of the criminalization of politics," Chabot said. "It smacks of Third Worldism, and Taiwan is much better than that. And as a very strong ally of Taiwan, I would like to see this addressed."