For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com
TAIPEI – Recurring reports that countries other than the United States are helping Taiwan build diesel-electric submarines domestically go back a decade. According to various articles, it’s either the Western Europeans, Russians or Indians who are clandestinely concocting a submarine plan with the Taiwanese.
While the notion that any country able to build subs would choose to so profoundly snub China appears unlikely, the question arises as to why these rumors persist.
An island and its mythical being
Then-United States president George W Bush in 2001 approved the sale of eight conventional submarines to Taiwan, but the deal has been in limbo ever since. While the US ceased building diesel-electric subs decades ago, the Western European countries that do still produce them likely fear reprisals from Beijing for supplying Taipei with the technology.
In the 2000s, with pro-independence Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian in power and the Taiwan Strait constantly on the brink of war, a solution that ostensibly suggested itself was that the Taiwanese build their own subs.
While there have yet to be credible signs that “Project Diving Dragon” was ever alive and kicking, or any alternate Taiwanese plan for submarines, rumors of its existence refuse to die. Intriguingly, such rumors have surfaced at even shorter intervals under Chen’s successor, Ma Ying-jeou, who says he doesn’t want an arms race with the military power across the Taiwan Strait.
Leaps forward – sudden and great
In late 2010, it was suggested that the Taiwanese navy had used a Russia trip by a Taiwanese ship and arms builder, the China Shipbuilding Corporation Taiwan, in late 2010 as cover for secret negotiations. Though apparently seeking Russian expertise in building ice-breaking ships, the genuine mission was reportedly talks on building diesel submarines in Taiwan.
According to another report in May, Washington proposed and Taipei accepted a deal for four subs instead of eight in order to revive the decade-old deal made with the Bush administration.
A few weeks later, the Taiwan Navy was said to have test-fired indigenous Hsiung Feng II (HF-2) ship-to-ship missiles from one of its two old Dutch-built Hailung class subs, suggesting the Taiwanese had made only two subs fit for combat with a new, “beyond-vision strike capability”.
However, the most recent news then broke in mid-December, with reports that Taiwan was persuading European submarine building experts to travel to the island to train Taiwanese in the specialized type of welding used on submarines, while naming India as an potential alternative supplier of submarine technology.
Not so subtle inconsistencies
For the time being, only the story on the HF-2 test-firings has been proven false.
The Hailungs, it turns out, still have problems with just launching torpedoes from old fire control systems and have “absolutely no capability” of launching anti-ship missiles from their torpedo tubes, a retired Taiwan Navy engineer told Defense News.
Some of the reports in question have rightly pointed out that indigenously building diesel-electric subs isn’t child’s play, warning that Taiwan could end up with flawed and prohibitively expensive boats and reminding that “Project Diving Dragon” never got the official nod from the Ministry of Defense in the first place.
Among the last weapons Beijing wants to see under Taipei’s command, submarines are among the very few platforms that deserve the term “game-changer”. This is particularly the case with Taiwan. If the island ever had to defend itself against a Chinese attack, diesel-electric subs could make a difference by prolonging the conflict so that things become dicey for Beijing.
Unlike Taiwanese fighter jets, which would have a hard time taking off or returning to base after Chinese ballistic missiles destroyed runways during the opening hours of conflict, submarines could hold out for significantly longer. In waters east off the island, they could – together with the Taiwanese fleet of surface combatants – open a corridor into the western Pacific for the US Pacific Fleet. This would be enormously detrimental to Beijing’s interests as it lowers potential US losses, easing a US president’s decision to order forces into the theater.
Taiwanese subs, if not built too large, could also ensure that any Chinese attempt of a large-scale amphibious landing incurred large losses in the shallow Taiwan Strait near to the coast. A bit farther flung but not entirely unrealistic is the notion that Taiwanese subs could block China’s ports, taking aim at the mainland’s economy.
Chinese breath of fire and brimstone
In October, economists Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann at the University of Goettingen in Germany published a paper that gave a mild foretaste of what would be in store for any country daring to assist. Fuchs and Klann demonstrated that world leaders who have defied Beijing by welcoming the exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama face an average 8.1% annual loss of exports to China for up to two years.
Euro-zone countries that in theory could play a role in Project Diving Dragon are not likely in the mood for any such shenanigans, which would likely irk China much more than any hosting of the Tibetan religious leader. Resource-rich Russia, which hopes to benefit from the stellar economic growth of its resource-hungry neighbor, is unlikely to consider anything of the sort.
This leaves only India. But Delhi does not have an indigenous conventional submarine construction capability. The Project 75A/76 program (the follow-on plan for six French Scorpene class diesel-electric submarines currently built in India) envisions help from either Europe or Russia, according to John Pike, director of the GlobalSecurity.org think-tank. By transferring technologies to Taiwan, India would risk jeopardizing a program deemed crucial in keeping up with China’s naval modernization.
Besides, as China sees all weapons sales to Taiwan as “splittist”, India can take it for granted that China would support separatist insurgencies in India in retaliation.
Political will in Taipei is also likely lacking. Lai I-chung, a member of the research body the Taiwan Thinktank, told Asia Times Online that Ma and his ruling Kuomintang party (KMT) had in the past decade opposed subs because they saw them as offensive and overly expensive weapons that would destabilize the situation across the Taiwan Strait.
Lai said that from 2000 to 2008 – when the KMT was in the opposition but held legislative majority – it blocked a special budget for subs over 60 times.
“But this all of a sudden changed in January 2011,” Lai said. “In a surprise statement, Ma named subs and new F-16s [fighter jets] as Taiwan’s two preferred weapon systems for purchase. Nobody knows why he changed his mind.”
Tsai Ming-Yen, chairman of the Graduate Institute of International Politics at Taiwan’s National Chung Hsing University, suggested that the sub stories could have to do with Ma wanting to calm public fears before he starts political talks with China if he wins a second term in the presidential elections to be held on January 14, particularly over a peace agreement he’s pledged to seek with the mainland.
“By telling the public he can build subs in Taiwan, Ma is reassuring them that the peace agreement won’t be detrimental to Taiwan’s security,” Tsai said.
Gavin Greenwood, a consultant with the Hong Kong-based security risk management consultancy firm Allan & Associates, has another take on Ma’s u-tune. He said that from Taiwan’s perspective, routine reminders to the US over undelivered arms packages served ulterior purposes.
“It gives Taipei some leverage on the more ‘doable’ deals – upgrades of the F-16 fleet and Patriot systems and delivery of the Blackhawk helicopters for example. It also fends off domestic opponents by seeming to strive for greater defenses against China with little risk of actually having to acquire – and pay – for the actual kit,” Greenwood said.
Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, said that even if Project Diving Dragon and other such plans don’t exist, allowing rumors to gain credibility is not too bad an option for the Taiwanese.
“If Taiwan should not develop an effective submarine force but could get the only power that will threaten its existence to divert a significant part of its military budget to develop an anti-submarine capability, it will mean less being spent on items that can pose a real threat to Taiwan’s existence,” Tsang said.