Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said her government has asked to purchase advanced new fighter jets and tanks from the U.S., a request that if approved, could set off new tensions between the U.S. and China.
Beijing considers self-governing Taiwan part of China, to be annexed by force if necessary. Speaking during a visit to Hawaii on Wednesday, Tsai said requests have been submitted for F-16V fighters and M1 Abrams tanks.
The new weaponry would "greatly enhance our land and air capabilities, strengthen military morale, and show to the world the U.S. commitment to Taiwan's defense," Tsai said
The U.S. is Taiwan's main supplier of defensive weapons, despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties. The F-16V is the most advanced version of the plane that already forms the backbone of Taiwan's air forces, while the M1 Abrams would mark a significant upgrade from the aging, refurbished models the army now uses. Reports say Taiwan is seeking 66 of the planes.
In Beijing, defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian reiterated Thursday that China was "firmly opposed" to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and military exchanges between the sides.
While China will strive to unify with Taiwan by peaceful means, it is prepared to take "all necessary measures" in response to pro-independence sentiment and outside influence, Wu said.
Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China urges the U.S. to stop arms sales to Taiwan "to avoid serious damage to China-U.S. cooperation." He added that the U.S. should "recognize the high sensitivity and serious harm" of the issue. The comments came the same afternoon that U.S. trade negotiators arrived in Beijing for a new round of talks.
In addition to arms sales, the U.S. is bound by law to treat threats to Taiwan as matters of major concern — although the law is vague on how it would respond to a Chinese attack on the island.
Taiwan's arms requests are carefully reviewed to ensure they suit "Taiwan's actual needs," Tsai said.
"We are also investing heavily into training as well as modernizing our defense strategies to prioritize the use of asymmetrical capabilities, so that they more closely correspond with the realities of the threat we face," Tsai said. "Altogether, I hope that these actions will ensure that the people of Taiwan remain able to choose our own futures, free of coercion."
Tsai, who says she will seek a second four-year term next year, said Taiwan was also stepping-up training as it prepared to transition to an all-volunteer force and pointed to three consecutive years of defense budget increases.
"These funds have been directed into programs that will make a real difference in Taiwan's defense, including asymmetrical capabilities," she said.
Tsai's unofficial Hawaii visit comes at the end of a trip to the Pacific island nations of Palau, Nauru, and the Marshall Islands, three of Taiwan's dwindling number of allies that now total just 17 as Beijing seeks to increase Taiwan's international isolation. The sides separated amid civil war in 1949.
Beijing has cut contacts with Tsai's government over Tsai's refusal to endorse its claim that Taiwan is a part of China. It has also stepped up efforts at military intimidation, such as circling the island with bombers and fighters in what are officially termed training missions.
Elsewhere in remarks carried by satellite link to the conservative Washington think tank the Heritage Foundation, Tsai said she found developments in Hong Kong "deeply concerning." China has touted Hong Kong as a future model Taiwan under what it calls "one country, two systems."
Critics say the semi-autonomous territory's civil liberties have been gradually eroded since it was handed over from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
"Hong Kong is a reminder that all politicians in Taiwan, regardless of politically parties, should carefully avoid falling into a trap laid by China, which includes economic incentives and other promises but ultimately leads to the same destination that is one country two system," Tsai said.
Associated Press journalist Johnson Lai contributed to this report from Taipei, Taiwan.