France approves jet sale to Taiwan

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FRANCE has given final approval for the sale of 60 Mirage 2000-5 fighters to Taiwan, a decision which is certain to infuriate China.

The French Industry and Foreign Trade Minister, Dominque Strauss-Kahn, said the government could not formally announce its approval until a commercial agreement was concluded between Taiwan and the manufacturer, Dassault Aviation. 'But such a decision . . . would not be considered by the French government as an act of aggression against the People's Republic of China,' he said.

President George Bush's recent agreement to unblock the sale of F-16s to Taiwan has clearly emboldened the French to risk Peking's displeasure. Dassault, which has not sold one of its military aircraft abroad since 1988 - attempts to interest Switzerland, Greece and Finland in the Mirage 2000-5 all fell through - badly needs the dollars 2.6bn ( pounds 1.31bn) deal.

However, the US is reported to be trying to dissuade the Taipei government from buying Mirages, arguing that to purchase the French aircraft as well as 150 F-16s might set off an arms race in the region. Taiwan's air force said yesterday that signature of an agreement to purchase Mirages had been postponed. Agence France- Presse quoted informed sources as saying the defence ministry wanted more time to decide specifications, but that US pressure was partly responsible for the delay.

China has kept up a torrent of denunciation against the F-16 sale since it was announced by Mr Bush last week, but has avoided specific threats beyond hinting that it will not co-operate with UN Security Council efforts to restrict arms supplies to the Middle East. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said yesterday that Peking would remain 'prudent and responsible' in its attitude to weapons exports. He denied that arms sales had been discussed during the current visit to Peking by Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the President of Iran.

Mr Rafsanjani announced yesterday that Tehran would buy a small nuclear power station from China, but said there were no plans for new military contracts between the two countries.

Peking has shown its displeasure with the French by delaying finalisation of a contract for 12 Airbus A300-600 airliners, but trade measures against the US or France might backfire, since both countries buy more from China than they export there.