Taiwan’s dream of having its own submarine fleet must yield to a more realistic China defence plan

Emanuele Scimia says quite apart from the forbidding price tag, the problem of technology access and the sheer imbalance in firepower when compared with China’s naval assets are challenges Taipei is unlikely to overcome

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 July, 2018, 11:19am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 July, 2018, 8:46pm

According to recent media reports, foreign shipbuilders have offered Taiwan hull designs for its indigenous defence submarine programme. Taiwanese Defence Minister Yen Teh-fa dismissed similar rumours in May, denying that 200 US naval specialists would take part in the submarine project.

It is unlikely that the United States, Japan, India or Europe will risk damaging ties with China by providing Taipei with submarine technology. 

This is particularly true of countries in Europe. It is not by chance that, in the joint statement of the 20th EU-China Summit, held in Beijing on Monday, there is no reference to the Taiwan issue, even though the document does include a paragraph on the disputed South China Sea, as “soft” as it looks.

But even if Taipei did manage to procure a foreign design, its submarine programme could prove economically, technically and strategically unfeasible. The Taiwanese government aims to build eight diesel-electric submarines to bolster its four outdated vessels.

They should serve as an asymmetric asset to deter a potential invasion from the mainland. Beijing has ramped up naval sorties around the island since Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, took over as Taiwan’s president in 2016. Communist China considers Taiwan a rebel province that must be reunited with the mainland, if need be by force.

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The first problem is that Taiwan has to develop a submarine fleet from scratch, and this comes at an exorbitant cost. To have an idea of just how expensive it is, Germany’s capable Type 214 diesel-electric submarine, which is also operated by the South Korean navy, has a price tag of about US$500 million. Not to mention the considerable expenses for crew training that should be added to the bill.

The Tsai administration has so far failed to walk the talk on the defence budget. In 2016, then defence minister Feng Shih-kuan revealed Taipei’s plans to raise military spending to US$13 billion during his first year in office, but it stood at US$9.9 billion in 2017, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – to make a comparison, China’s was US$228 billion.

Last October, Tsai claimed her government would boost future defence expenditure by 2 or 3 per cent per year. She is unlikely to fulfil that promise. It has been reported that the island’s military budget will grow in 2019, but not in the way the Ministry of National Defence expects. Overall spending will not see a big increase, in fact, given a shortfall in projected tax revenues.

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In addition, the submarine project will inevitably run into technical hiccups if Taipei has to integrate complex systems from different countries and models. Apart from the hull design, Taiwan needs diesel-electric engines and air-independent propulsion (AIP) technology, which increases the undersea autonomy of a conventional submarine, for its future boats.

In 1979, Washington switched formal diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei, but it must help the island maintain its self-defence capabilities in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act.

Geography counts in cross-strait relations. Taiwan is a small island off the coast of a continental superpower

Though the US Senate version of the defence appropriation bill for 2019 supports the acquisition of defensive weaponry for undersea warfare by Taiwan, and the US State Department authorised American contractors to sell submarine components to Taipei in April, Washington has limited options to contribute to the island’s submarine programme.

Indeed, the US Navy has only nuclear-powered submarines and US defence shipbuilders do not build diesel-electric platforms. That means Taiwan will have to get into the delicate and costly business of assembling European or Japanese hull designs, diesel-electric motors and AIP technology with US combat systems to realise its new boats.

More importantly, Taipei has to deal with its strategic weaknesses. It needs time to build and commission submarines. In the best case, the Taiwanese navy could deploy the first vessel in the late 2030s, and the refitting of its two ageing, Dutch-manufactured Zwaardvis submarines would have to fill this operational vacuum.

For its part, China has 73 submarines in service, according to Global Firepower, of which a dozen are nuclear-powered. The mismatch between Beijing and Taipei in the undersea warfare domain is evident, but also in other realms affecting the island’s security (anti-ship and land attack missiles, rocket artillery and airborne assault).

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Geography counts in cross-strait relations. Taiwan is a small island off the coast of a continental superpower. To build up its asymmetric capacities against a possible naval attack from the mainland, Taipei should focus on more affordable and less complex arms systems than submarines, such as fast-attack boats equipped with anti-ship missiles and corvettes. It should also invest in minelayers and land-based and mobile anti-ship missile batteries.

As Lyle Goldstein, a research professor at the US Naval War College, told me, in its quest for asymmetric capabilities, Taiwan should factor in the “opportunity costs” of constructing a submarine fleet – a problem that is also afflicting the Philippines, which is reportedly trying to expedite the purchase of an undefined number of submarines amid China’s growing military pressure in the South China Sea.

Emanuele Scimia is an independent journalist and foreign affairs analyst