By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two senior U.S. Republican senators asked the Trump administration on Monday to allow the sale of Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 fighter jets to Taiwan, saying it would help it "remain a democracy" in the face of threats from China.
China's hostility towards self-ruled Taiwan has grown since Tsai Ing-wen from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party won presidential elections on the island in 2016. China claims Taiwan as its own and is one of its most sensitive issues.
"These fighters will have a positive impact on Taiwan's self-defense and would act as a necessary deterrent to China's aggressive military posture across the Asia-Pacific region," Senators John Cornyn, the assistant majority leader, and James Inhofe, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a letter to President Donald Trump.
"After years of military modernization, China shows the ability to wage war against Taiwan for the first time since the 1950s," they wrote. "However, with your leadership, it is possible to help Taiwan remain a democracy, free to establish a relationship with China that is not driven by military coercion."
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
China has been increasing its military exercises around Taiwan and making markedly stronger public comments about the need to prevent Taiwan independence.On Tuesday, retired Chinese general Wang Hongguang explained how easy it would be for China to attack Taiwan in an opinion piece in widely read state-run newspaper the Global Times, including a mass bombardment which would render Taiwan's military inoperable within 48 hours.
Taiwan's main command center outside Taipei is also clearly marked out on Google maps, Wang, a former deputy commander of the Nanjing military region, wrote.
"It would be like picking off lice on the head of bald man," Wang added.
TAIWAN PRESIDENT PRAISES U.S. TIES
The sale of the jets could increase tensions with Beijing, where officials were infuriated when Trump signed legislation this month that encourages the United States to send senior officials to Taiwan to meet Taiwanese counterparts and vice versa.
On Tuesday, the office of Taiwan's president reiterated its support for the legislation and awarded U.S. Representative Ed Royce, who is currently visiting the island, a medal of honor for his contributions toward Taiwan-U.S. relations.
"President Tsai believes that stable relations between Taiwan and the U.S. serve as an important foundation for peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. Taiwan has the ability and is willing to work with the United States in the Indo-Pacific region to make more contributions," the presidential office said.
Separately, Liu Jieyi, head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, told state television late on Monday that "certain Americans" were trying to play the Taiwan card, which harmed the interest of people both in China and Taiwan.
"This is duping Taiwan compatriots," Liu said, without naming any U.S. officials. "It is futile for any outside forces to try to play the Taiwan card and do anything to harm the interest of the Chinese people."
The U.S. military has put countering China and Russia at the center of a new national defense strategy unveiled by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in January.
Other U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific region, such as Singapore, also are exploring the purchase of the stealthy F-35.
Lockheed hit its 2017 target to deliver 66 F-35 fighter jets to the United States and its allies last year.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Mike Stone in Washington, Twinnie Siu in Taipei and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by James Dalgleish, Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie)