By Jim Wolf
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The State Department is declining for the first time to address an annual industry conference on defense and security ties between the United States and Taiwan, the event's organizer said.
U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are a major sore spot with China, which regards the self-ruled island as its own. Still, the State Department has sent one of its senior officials to speak at the event each year for the past nine years, Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, told Reuters in a telephone interview late Tuesday.
"It's certainly a disappointment," he said, although a senior Pentagon official will address the conference.
This year marks the 10th in the series of such business council-organized conferences on arms sales and security ties with Taiwan. It is taking place in Richmond, Virginia, Sunday through Tuesday.
The State Department had no comment on why it was sitting out the event.
It falls 10 days before the Obama administration is due to make known its policy on Taiwan's request to buy 66 late-model F-16 fighter planes built by Lockheed Martin Corp.
Since 2006, the United States has balked at providing the F-16 C/D models, potentially valued at more than $8 billion, apparently for fear of angering Beijing.
The U.S. will be represented by Peter Lavoy, acting assistant secretary of defense for East Asia and the Pacific. Taiwan's delegation will be headed by Andrew Yang, the deputy defense minister, Hammond-Chambers said.
A spokesman for Senator John Cornyn, who is spearheading a drive to mandate an F-16 sale to Taiwan if President Barack Obama refuses, regretted the State Department's decision.
"It's disappointing that, despite past involvement, the State Department does not plan to participate in such a critical forum for U.S.-Taiwan security issues," said Drew Brandewie, Cornyn's spokesman.
China's top official newspaper warned last week that "madmen" on Capitol Hill pushing the F-16 sale were playing with fire and could pay a "disastrous price," as the administration's decision on any sale nears.
Cornyn brought the issue to a head by using a senatorial privilege to bottle up Obama's nomination of William Burns for the State Department's No. 2 job. He released his "hold" on Burns after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised a decision on what to do about Taiwan's aging air force by October 1.
The United States is committed under a 1979 law to supply Taiwan with the weapons it needs to maintain a "sufficient self-defense capability." Taiwan wants the F-16s to replace its old F-5 fighters and to bolster its early-model F-16 A/Bs sold by President George H. W. Bush in 1992.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)