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Taiwan's Ma says building concensus on arms deal

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WASHINGTON, Mar 24 (Reuters) Taiwan's main opposition Nationalist Party is building a consensus on a key 11 billion dollar US arms package that has long been delayed by political wrangling, according to the party's leader.

Ma Ying-jeou, chairman of the Nationalist Party, blamed the latest glitch in an arms package first offered by Washington in April 2001 on President Chen Shui-bian's controversial move last month to scrap the dormant National Unification Council and guidelines aimed at one day reuniting China and Taiwan.

The move by the independence-minded Chen, which riled Beijing and raised alarm in Washington, caused the Nationalist caucus to again defer a decision on the package of submarines, anti-submarine aircraft and anti-missile systems, Ma said yesterday.

''If we let it go, people would get a wrong signal from us and think that we support President Chen's scrapping of unification guidelines,'' Ma said in remarks to the US-Taiwan Business Council in Washington.

''The consensus is building, but we hope in the next couple months there will be no more surprises from the government in terms of cross-Strait relations,'' he said.

Ma, seen as the opposition's best bet for victory in the 2008 presidential election, said he expected the Nationalist caucus to make ''a more concrete decision in the months ahead.'' The evaluation of the weapons deal would be based on Taiwan's defense needs, the state of relations with China, Taipei's financial capabilities and public opinion, added Ma, whose party favors closer ties with China.

China has viewed Taiwan as part of Chinese territory since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949 and has vowed to bring the self-governed democracy of 23 million people back to the fold -- by force if necessary.

The United States recognises the mainland as China's sole legitimate government, but in a deliberately ambiguous piece of foreign policy it is also obliged by law to help Taiwan defend itself.

The United States offered an 18 billion dollar package of advanced weapons in 2001. Taiwan has since cut its budget for the arms from 18 billion dollars to 11 billion dollars in a special budget earmarked to pay for eight diesel-electric submarines and 12 P-3C Orion anti-submarine aircraft.

The government dropped six anti-missile Patriot Advanced Capability-3 batteries from the special budget, although it still plans to buy the systems using the defense ministry's regular budget.

The Nationalists and their partners in opposition have stopped the issue from getting on parliament's agenda more than 40 times. The delay has fueled worries in Washington that Taipei is not serious about its own defence.

Reuters DH VP0613

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