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TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan will never ask the United States to help fight a war, officials said on Monday in comments that could ease regional tension but shake views the island needs the world military superpower to battle China.
In a statement seen appeasing both Washington and Beijing, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou had told a visiting television reporter over the weekend that the island would stand up for itself, suggesting the United States was not obligated to send help and risk its own conflict with China.
Removing U.S. military aid from the equation would lower the odds of a prolonged conflict involving Taiwan despite its decades of political hostilities with China. That shift could firm market sentiment already buoyed by two years of detente and trade talks.
China claims self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and leads the island in military might, but the China-friendly president said on television he would "never ask the Americans to fight for Taiwan."
Washington, which had no immediate comment on the president's remarks, could decide on its own whether to help Taiwan, cabinet spokesman Johnny Chiang said on Monday following protests from Taiwan's anti-China main opposition party.
"The president is saying Taiwan is resolved to protect itself," Chiang told Reuters. "What he means is that he hopes he doesn't need to see the United States involved in any war."
The United States, Taiwan's staunchest ally and chief arms supplier, is bound by its 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to help defend the island but as it seeks better ties with Beijing has hedged on saying how far it would go in the event of a war.
Beijing, for its part, has dropped war threats against Taiwan as the two sides discuss trade and transit agreements, putting aside sovereignty disputes that have lingered since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s.
Taiwan still wants the United States to sell it advanced weaponry, Chiang said, despite inevitable protests from China.
Ma's statement has touched off debate in Taiwan, where much of the public assumed for decades the United States would send warships or other aid in the event of a conflict with China.
"Of course it has stirred up domestic debate and discussion," said Lin Chong-pin, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taipei. "But we are so small, we can't dominate what the United States is doing or what Beijing is doing."
Reporting by Ralph Jennings; Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee and Jerry Norton