Taiwan said it needs to upgrade its naval fleet, urging the United States to press ahead with a long-standing agreement that will see the sale of submarines to the island.

President Ma Ying-jeou voiced the desire as a US congressional group led by Edward Royce, chairman of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, visited the island to evaluate defence needs.

“The two Guppy-class (submarines) joined the Taiwanese force more than 40 years ago when I was with the navy. Now indeed they are very old and need to be replaced,” Ma told the US delegation.

The US remains the leading arms supplier to Taiwan despite the lack of formal diplomatic recognition since 1979. In April 2001, then-US President George W. Bush approved the sales of eight conventional submarines to the island as part of a comprehensive package. However, little progress has been made in the finalizing of the arms deal.

Royce told reporters his group had held talks with Taiwanese admirals about possible ways to remove barriers to the deal, but did not elaborate, according to AFP.

“With respect to submarines, Taiwan is in need of upgrades in terms of their submarine fleet and I support newer subs for Taiwan,” Royce said. “Our goal is to find an effective way to meet that objective”.

Taiwan’s navy fleet consists of two US-made diesel-electric submarines built in the 1940s, two other Dutch-built submarines and vintage US warships sold to the island in 1973.