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10 Jun 04. Reuters reported that a group of Taiwan lawmakers will visit the United States next week to discuss an $18bn arms deal amid heated debate over whether the island can afford, or even needs, advanced U.S. weapons to counter a threat from China.

The defence ministry wants parliament to grant it a special budget of T$610bn (US$18.2bn) to buy Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile systems, submarines and anti-submarine aircraft in what would be the biggest arms sale to Taiwan in a decade.

The ministry says the weapons are essential to warding off a growing war threat from China — which views self-ruled Taiwan as a breakaway province to be reunified, by force if necessary — but opposition parties complain that the price tag is too high.

The delegation will be led by Parliament Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, from the opposition Nationalist Party, and will visit the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, the Pentagon and other military facilities from June 17-28, officials said on Thursday.

“It is part of U.S. lobbying efforts to showcase the superiority of their weapons and highlight their importance to Taiwan’s security,” Lee Wen-chung, a lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party on the delegation, told Reuters.

Lee said he also shared opposition concerns about the cost of the weapons and would seek clarification from the United States. Washington, Taiwan’s biggest arms supplier, has warned Taipei that it was not spending enough on defence against China. This arms deal was first offered by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2001 but has been delayed by budget problems.

Some lawmakers also questioned whether it was necessary for Taiwan to buy such advanced weapons, citing for example that the older and cheaper Patriot Advanced Capability-2 (PAC-2) anti-missiles might suffice instead of the PAC-3.Lockheed Martin Corp makes the PAC-3, known as hit-to-kill since it destroys incoming ballistic missiles by slamming into them.

The defence ministry proposes spending T$145bn for six PAC-3 anti-missile systems, T$412bn for eight diesel-engine submarines and T$53bn for 12 P-3C Orion anti-submarine aircraft over 15 years. The special budget will not be discussed in parliament before the end of the current session on Friday, but officials hope it would be approved later this year. Beijing has more than 500 short-range ballistic missiles pointed at Taiwan, and its defence spending of US$50bn to $70bn is third behind the United States and Russia, the Pentagon has said. (US$1=T$33.5)

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