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TAICHUNG, Taiwan (Reuters) - Taiwan plans to build 66 jet trainer aircraft, with a scheduled maiden flight by 2020, to bolster defences against China which has never renounced the use of force to take back what it sees as its territory.
The fleet of 66 aircraft will be delivered by 2026, the National Chung-shan Institute of Science and Technology, a quasi-defence ministry research agency, said on Tuesday.
"Investing over T$68 billion ($2.19 billion) in new model advanced jet trainers, not only lays the foundation for the development of our future air combat capability, but also lets our aerospace industry continue to develop," Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said at a signing ceremony for the project.
The jets will be developed jointly by the institute, defence ministry and Aerospace Industrial Development Corp, the island's sole military jet-maker.
Taiwan's jet-making capabilities have "stagnated" for nearly 30 years with its aerospace industry falling behind other countries, Tsai said, referring to the Indigenous Defence Fighters (IDFs) combat aircraft Taiwan developed and produced in the 1990s. The programme ended in 1999-2000.
"We do not have another 30 years to waste," Tsai said.
In its latest 2017 budget, the defence ministry said it planned to spend T$68.6 billion over 12 years developing its own jet trainers.
Jet trainers are also called light attack aircraft although Taiwan says its jet trainers will only be used to prepare pilots for combat aircraft. Taiwan's air force mainly flies IDFs, and French-built Mirage and U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets.
Taiwan, isolated diplomatically and reliant on the United States as its only arms supplier, has struggled to maintain modern military wares in the face of China's growing might across the 180 km-wide (112 mile) Taiwan Strait to its west.
In late December 2016 and early January this year, China rattled Taipei when it sailed its sole aircraft carrier around the island for what Beijing said were routine drills.
Beijing distrusts Tsai and her independence-leaning ruling government, and sees moves towards independence as a reason to forcibly take control of Taiwan.
Tsai's push to build Taiwan's defence industry is also aimed at increasing technological know-how and boost economic growth at home, but technology transfer from allies will be critical to the success of the indigenous aircraft programme.
Reporting by Damon Lin; Writing by J.R. Wu; Editing by Michael Perry