(Reuters) - The United States has refused Taiwan's request for 66 new F-16C/D fighter jets that China warned Washington would risk inflaming tensions between the two big powers, Defense News reported, citing a Taiwan defense official.
Taiwan has repeatedly asked Washington to agree to sell the advanced F-16 fighter jets, citing the need to counter the growing military strength of China, which deems the island an illegitimate breakaway that must eventually accept reunification, by force if necessary.
Neither Washington nor Taipei has made any formal announcement about the latest call for the fighters, but Defense News (www.defensenews.com) reported on Sunday that Taiwan had been told there would be no sale, citing Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense.
"We are so disappointed in the United States," the report quoted an unnamed Taiwan defense official told the journal.
"A U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) delegation arrived here last week to deliver the news and offer instead a retrofit package for older F-16A/Bs," the journal reported from Taipei.
Any fresh U.S. arms support to Taiwan is likely to raise hackles in Beijing, but the advanced fighter jets have been an especially touchy point for China, which this week will host U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
The bitter debate in the U.S. Congress over spending and the downgrade of the U.S. sovereign credit rating by Standard & Poor's drew blunt criticism from China's state media, including a commentary that said the U.S. debt woes reflected its military overreach abroad.
Taiwan's defense ministry said it could not comment on the report, as it has not heard from or receive notification from the U.S.
"However, we want to point out that the Republic of China does hope the sale of new F-16C/D fighter aircraft will go through. We are in urgent need of the aircraft," Spokesman Luo shou-he told Reuters.
"We have been in frequent contacts with the U.S. government. The last time we heard from them is that they are not sure when the sale will be approved or if they will be," he added.
Washington had been set to make a decision by October on Taiwan's oft-repeated request for the fighter jets, balancing its legal obligations to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act against the need to avoid upsets with a major creditor and trading partner, China.
In early 2010, the Obama administration's decision to move forward with a set of arms sales to Taiwan triggered a vehement response from Beijing, which curtailed many military contacts and threatened to sanction companies involved in the sales.
Since then, Beijing and Washington have patched up ties, but the potential sale of more U.S. weapons to Taiwan remains a sensitive point in China.
In May, a visiting Chinese military commander warned against any future U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. And recently, a popular tabloid linked to China's Communist Party's mouthpiece argued that China should use its "financial weapon to slap Washington" over any arms sales to Taiwan.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing and Faith Hung in Taipei)
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