Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou on Thursday renewed his call for the United States to sell fighter jets to the island, arguing its survival was at stake despite his outreach to China.

Taiwan “is a sovereign state; we must have our national defense,” Ma, who often plays down suggestions of the island’s separate identity, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

“While we negotiate with the mainland, we hope to carry out such talks with sufficient self-defense capabilities and not negotiate out of fear,” Ma said.

Relations between the China and Taiwan have improved markedly since Ma took office in 2008. But Taiwan fears that the military balance is shifting toward a rapidly growing China, which recently rolled out a stealth fighter jet.

“We oppose the use of military force to resolve cross-strait disputes. However, this is not to say that we cannot maintain a military capability necessary for Taiwan’s security,” Ma said.

The United States last year approved a $6.4 billion weapons package for Taiwan including Patriot missiles, Black Hawk helicopters, and equipment for Taiwan’s F-16 fighter jets, but no submarines or new fighter aircraft.

Asked about Ma’s request, Admiral Robert Willard, head of the US Pacific Command, indicated that the United States would sell weapons again to Taiwan in the future but that no decision had been made.

“I think there will come a time when the Taiwan forces, be they air forces or any others, will have to be recapitalized,” Willard told reporters.

The United States recognizes only Beijing as China’s government but is required by law to ensure Taiwan’s capability to defend itself.

China considers Taiwan, where the mainland’s defeated nationalists fled in 1949, to be a province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary. Ma last year reached a sweeping trade pact with China, seen as a milestone in ties.

Ma, whose Beijing-friendly policies have sometimes been controversial at home, defended his record on human rights which he said were a “core value” for Taiwan.

Ma noted that he has marked China’s 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square democracy protests and urged Beijing to release Nobel Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo.

“Naturally, we hope that the mainland as it interacts with us can gradually become free and democratic,” Ma said, while acknowledging that “this is not an easy task.”

But Ma also pointed to comments by Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao on political reforms, saying: “They have even on many occasions talked of democracy, saying that democracy is a very good system.”

“We are naturally delighted to see this,” Ma said.