updated 7/16/2008 7:10:40 PM ET 2008-07-16T23:10:40

The top U.S. military commander in the Pacific said Wednesday that a Bush administration freeze of arms sales to Taiwan does not lessen the U.S. commitment to defend the island from an attack by rival China.

Admiral Timothy Keating said the U.S. officials who decided on the freeze have studied the current military capabilities of both China and Taiwan and determined that there is no current pressing need for new sales.

Last week, however, new Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said Taiwan needs to secure defensive weapons from the United States and that Washington's stance on arms sales was creating problems for Taiwan. Among the items at issue are F-16 jet fighters, Patriot III anti-missile missiles and Apache helicopters.

Keating, in comments at The Heritage Foundation think tank, said tensions have "palpably decreased" in the Taiwan Strait since the election of Ma, who has pushed for better relations with China.

But, he added, U.S. military presence in the Pacific sends a clear message to China about any attack against Taiwan: "I want them to know that they are going to lose, China, so don't bother."

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The United States has tried to strike a balance between providing for the defense of Taiwan, a self-governing island that China claims as its own territory, and establishing better military ties with China. Beijing has repeatedly threatened to invade if Taiwan formally declares independence.

Washington shifted recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. But the U.S. remains Taiwan's most important foreign partner and the major source of its imported arms.

U.S. caution about selling arms to Taiwan, however, reflects China's growing economic and political clout. The Bush administration needs China's help in a host of international efforts, including attempts to confront Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.

The freeze comes as the U.S. Defense Department said in this year's report on China's military that Beijing continues its huge military buildup opposite Taiwan, further pushing the balance of power between the two rivals toward the mainland's favor.

Keating, asked about this growing gap, said he was "hopeful, optimistic" that Taiwan's training, defensive systems and motivation are enough to "convince China it is very much not in China's interests to come across the Strait in a military action."

He added that everyone in the region knows that the U.S. military reserves the right to respond to any attack.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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