Taiwan’s Submarine Options and US- China-Taiwan Relations

Jens Kastner, mid-July 2012

presented at: Academia Sinica, International Conference on US Arms Sales to Taiwan, Aug 2-3, 2012


This paper examines where Taiwan’s decades-old pursuit for a deterrent diesel-electric submarine fleet stands. Based on open-source material and interviews with experts in Taiwan and the West, it tries to expose the obstacles facing Taiwan as well as any country possibly willing to assist the island in acquiring the vessels. The paper expounds only briefly on the military value of modern diesel-electric submarines in the Taiwan context and on technical issues that will make it an unpromising task for Taiwan to produce the submarines domestically, but reveals in detail what political forces would be at work upon an announcement of the US – as the nation that has already promised to help Taiwan obtain the boats – of a program or Taipei’s embarkation on a domestic one. The paper argues that the weakest link in the chain is Taipei’s political will, and that all the signs are that Beijing will find it easy to exploit this shortcoming in order to prevent Taiwan from acquiring an immensely fatal weapon system that could defy an attempt for forceful unification. However, the paper draws the conclusion that against all odds, there still is the possibility for Taiwan to obtain a diesel-electric submarine fleet. But this calls for the determination of the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou to safeguard its credibility, which it might risk losing due to signals it sends out about Taiwan’s long-stalled pursuit of F-16C/D fighter jets, and for both camps in Taiwanese domestic politics to close ranks.

The hypothetical impact of a future Taiwanese submarine fleet on cross-strait military balance

With only two combat-capable submarines and as few trainers, Taiwan hardly has a submarine fleet that could deter China from forcing unification upon the island. But as long as the political leadership in Taipei demonstrates its commitment to the acquisition of additional diesel-electric submarines, the possibility that the island will eventually command a submarine fleet that matters cannot be ruled out. If Taiwan were to succeed in obtaining the boats, they would serve as a significant deterrence to Chinese aggression, as they – in the event of a forceful drive by Beijing for unification – could profoundly interfere with China’s two most probable courses of action:

  • If a PLA campaign against Taiwan starts off with bombardment aiming at destroying Taiwan’s air force on the ground, naval assets in the ports, command-and-control centers and other vital military infrastructures, diesel-electric submarines would boost Taipei’s second strike capabilities greatly provided they were on patrol when the bombardments occurred. If Taiwan had at least four boats that were small enough, they could be deployed in the Taiwan Strait just off the key passageways out from PLA Navy bases. There, they could conduct mining operations and pose threats to the major surface combatants of the PLA Navy, given that with four submarines available, very probably two could be deployed around-the-clock during a crisis. By contrast, even if the US Navy, in order to come to Taiwan’s help, were willing to deploy its Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered fast attack submarines – which are the US’s smallest, it could not properly operate in the area’s shallow waters.
  • If China is to opt for a naval blockade against Taiwan instead of bombarding and launching an amphibious invasion that would risk prompting US military intervention and almost certainly lead to decades of China facing a Taiwanese population similarly hostile than the ones in Xinjiang and Tibet, the Taiwanese submarines could help ensure a “Focused Lifeline” for the island, which produces only 0.6 percent of its primary energy supply and imports almost all corn and soybeans needed to feed its livestock. Under this concept, the US Navy would escort supply ships to the border of Taiwan’s twelve nautical miles zone, at which the Taiwan Navy would take over. China would then have to make the choice between acting in Taiwan’s territorial waters and attacking the convoys in international waters, in what would amount to an act of war against the US, which in turn would with near certainty end the Chinese economic miracle. Despite their slow speed of approximately four knots, diesel-electric submarines could play a crucial role in keeping PLA Navy surface warships and submarines from cutting the “Focused Lifeline” as they would only have to skim waters around narrow corridors off Taiwan’s east coast leading into the ports of Hualien and Suao, which are somewhat protected by the Central Mountain Range. By the time Beijing decides to implement a naval blockade, Taiwan’s population would almost certainly be gravely split due to the effects of China’s “United Front” strategy that generously rewards China sympathizers in Taiwan with a carrot-and-stick approach, but the maintenance of the “Focused Lifeline” would significantly weaken the divide on the island as it decisively counters fears of abandonment by Washington, thereby in turn nurturing the perception among Taiwanese pro-unification forces that they might have bet on the wrong horse.

As additional pros, Taiwan’s boats could remain submerged underwater for longer than a month, thereby forcing the PLA Navy to deploy significant resources to track and kill them at the expense of other tactic purposes. And, unlike new fighter aircraft, diesel-electric submarines would have a long-lasting deterring effect. By comparison, even if Taiwan today obtained the new F-16C/Ds it has been requesting for years, it would likely face China’s superior fifth-generation J-20, whose prototype had its maiden flight in January 2011, in four to seven years given the time spans the F-16s and F-22s needed to reach operational capability after their first test flights can be taken as an indicator.

On the negative side, from a purely military point of view, the arguably most pressing argument against Taiwanese submarines has to be the expected price tag. At an estimated cost of over US$1.5 billion each, the establishment of a fleet will grossly distort the island’s defense budget, which stands at US$10.6 billion for 2012. The submarines would come at the expense of other platforms that are much cheaper and easier to obtain, but possibly are nearly as much a deterrence to China’s military planners. One such weapon category could be the missile-armed fast patrol boats, such as Taiwan’s existing Kuang Hua VI-class as well as the planned missile corvette Hsun Hai, which could, by attacking in wolf packs applying a hit-and-run tactic from coastal caves and fishing harbors, severely complicate PLA Navy operations against the island. The comparison in monetary terms is striking: Kuang Huas reportedly cost just above US$12 million each, suggesting that over a hundred missile boats could be deployed for the price of just one submarine. Also specialized trucks equipped with land attack cruise missiles could be a cost-saving alternative. Unlike diesel-electric submarines, which can only carry a limited amount of ordnance and would be vulnerable during reload once the PLA Air Force has gained air superiority, those can be refitted frequently and in many sorts of locations.

However, fears that Taiwanese submarines would inevitably unintentionally interfere with the reconnaissance operations of the US and Japanese navies are somewhat exaggerated, given that they would hardly have acoustic signatures that are similar to PLA Navy boats, and that for the US and Japanese navies, deconflicting ship movements is a routine task.

The history of Taiwan’s quest for a submarine fleet and technical obstacles to it

The Taiwan Navy operates two Haishih-Class submarines, which were built in the US shortly after World War 2 as the Guppy-Class and obtained in 1973, as well as two Hailung-Class submarines, which as improved Zwaardvis-Class boats were acquired from the Netherlands in 1987. Currently, only the Hailungs are armed, while the Haishihs are used in anti-submarine warfare exercises simulating PLA Navy boats. In 1983, while the Hailungs were still under construction, Taipei began requesting additional vessels from the Netherlands, but the deal did not materialize after Beijing threatened The Hague with economic and diplomatic retaliation, temporarily cut bilateral diplomatic relations and downgraded the Chinese embassy in Amsterdam to a representative office. In the following years until the mid-1990s, a Dutch shipyard still sought to find a way either by the licensed construction of submarines in Taiwan or the selling-on of vessels decommissioned by the Dutch Navy, but these deals also failed to get the nod of The Hague.

The Germans had also been approached by Taipei. A Letter of Intent was signed in 1987 with Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW), but it was rejected twice by Berlin for the sake of smooth Germany-China relations. Since exports by Germany and the Netherlands to Taiwan became increasingly unlikely, Taiwan turned to request help from the US in 1995, but the major obstacle here was not so much political but technical: US shipbuilders have not constructed diesel-electric submarines since the 1950s, and in order to avoid developing technology from scratch, which would have been prohibitively expensive, they would have had to team up with the reluctant Europeans.

In any case, the Bush Administration in April 2001 agreed to sell eight diesel-electric submarines to Taiwan presumably because it assessed that a transition of power in Berlin in 1998 changed the attitude in Germany. But the new German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, who had pushed for the submarine sale to Taiwan when he was premier of one of Germany’s states, had instead maintained his predecessor’s conservative approach regarding arms sales to Taiwan throughout his chancellorship. As a clear sign that Beijing not only succeeded in deterring European direct submarine exports to Taiwan but also European participation in such schemes that involve sales technology transfers via third countries, almost immediately following Bush’s announcement, the Netherlands and Germany forbade the sale of their sub designs to the US for manufacturing the boats for Taiwan.

As cross-strait tensions continued running high during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency from 2000 to 2008, a solution that ostensibly suggested itself was that the Taiwanese build their own boats. Although the Bush Administration promised to help Taiwan buy submarines but not build them, Taiwan’s China Shipbuilding Corporation (CSBC) became interested in the contract. The project was dubbed “Project Diving Dragon”, and it was envisioned that some boats would be built in Taiwan using technology transfers. However, when talk on the project emerged, the Taiwanese National Security Council and legislators voiced their concerns over price increases, schedule delays and problems with quality standards that could potentially result from local construction, and neither were the Taiwan Navy and the MND convinced. It was estimated that an involvement of CSBC would have pushed the price tag 20 percent higher for eight boats from US$8.65-11.8 billion.

While the discussions dragged on, Taiwan let slip through its hands the first concrete chance to obtain diesel-electric submarines it ever had since the 1980s. In 2003, the Bush Administration inquired with Italy about buying eight decommissioning Sauro-Class diesel-electric submarines for the estimated cost of about US$2 billion. Delivery would have begun in 2006 after the US refurbished the vessels, but Taipei rejected the offer and insisted on new submarines.

In 2004, the DoD conveyed to Taipei in official letters US opposition to Taiwan’s domestic production of submarines, and Project Diving Dragon was reportedly aborted around that time. Subsequently, the concept of “two phases” emerged, according to which Taiwan was to buy the design first and then the subs built in the US, and to which Washington gave its approval in 2006. However, when in 2008 the Bush Administration notified Congress of proposed arms sales to Taiwan, the submarine design program was not part of the package. Shortly afterwards, Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT became president in Taiwan. Ma has continued reiterating his commitment to arms procurement from US, but more than three years into the term of US President Barack Obama, the Obama Administration has yet to clearly clarify its attitude on the issue.

Rumors on a resurrection of Project Diving Dragon as well as various other scenarios are persistent, nonetheless. Whereas Taiwan’s quest for additional submarines has led to recurring news stories going back more than two decades ago, they – involving a conspicuous amount of different angles – seem to have been particularly abundant since late 2010. The apparent surge began shortly before Ma, in talks with US officials in January 2011, singled out submarines and F-16C/Ds as Taiwan’s preferred weapon system for purchase. To some local observers, these statements of Ma’s signaled a major shift in his attitude towards the submarines as he and National Security Council (NSC) Secretary General Su Chi, who resigned in February 2010, had been regarded as opponents to having additional submarines because of their inherently offensive nature.

It was reported in:

  • December 2010, that a task force comprising officials from the ROC Navy and CSBC had visited Russia to discuss the possibility of collaborating with shipbuilders there to build submarines for Taiwan under the pretense of inquiring over ice-breaking ships. The MND denied the reports.
  • May 2011, that the MND decided to accept a US proposal that Taiwan buy just four conventional submarines instead of eight. The MND denied the reports.
  • July 2011, that the Taiwan Navy successfully test-fired its indigenous Hsiung Feng 2 ship-to-ship missiles from the Hailungs, thereby giving the boats beyond-vision striking capability. The story was subsequently proved a canard as the Hailungs had no capability of launching anti-ship missiles from their torpedo tubes.
  • December 2011, that the MND had given up the plan to buy submarines from the US and decided to launch an indigenous program with foreign assistance. It was alleged that Taiwan was quietly arranging to have European submarine building experts accept contracts to temporarily work in a shipyard on the island, and that some European builders have agreed to train Taiwanese welders in the specialized type of welding used on submarines. It was furthermore reported that negotiations were under way to purchase a wide array of specialized components needed for diesel-electric submarines, and also speculated that India, which sees China as a major rival and is building its own Scorpene diesel-electric attack submarines under license from France’s DCNS, could possibly assist CSBC. The Taiwan Navy denied the claims.
  • February 2012, that the Taiwan Navy decided to embark on a domestic submarine program in 2013 and had briefed a small group of legislators from the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, as well as legislators from the opposition DPP. It has furthermore been reported that an unspecified budget for the 2013 financial year has been set aside for a domestic diesel-electric submarine program, which would involve a unique design and assistance from one or a number of foreign countries.
  • February 2012, that Taiwan planned to buy four diesel-electric submarines that were originally intended for Greece. According to the report, Greece had ordered four Type 214 diesel-electric submarines from HDW, but as Greece due to its precarious national finances could not pay for the submarines, HDW planned to sell them to Taiwan in order to avert its own bankruptcy. The MND denied the report. A further sign suggesting that this story was a canard was that it was never picked up on by the mainstream German media, though it was arguably very newsworthy in a time when German Chancellor Angela Merkel made worldwide headlines with her hardline stance on Greek austerity. It might also be indicative that German engineers involved in their country’s submarine production were not aware of related rumors. They expressed their view that Berlin had never expected Greece to pay in the first place, and that the deal was all along meant as a hidden state subsidy to ailing HDW.

In terms of relatively recent statements by Taiwanese officials, in March 2012, Minister of National Defense Kao Hua-chu and Deputy Defense Minister Chao Shih-chang, when criticized by lawmakers for what they called the MND’s passive attitude toward indigenous development of its own submarines, responded by saying that the defense ministry would be pleased to see CSBC build the boats if it could reach the necessary technological level and obtain support from abroad . However, the wording chosen by Kao and Chao seemed to have solely aimed at calming critics and apparently displayed a certain degree of sarcasm.

And indeed, if CSBC were to take on Project Diving Dragon, it would have to overcome a number of significant technical obstacles:

  • Even if the boats could be built domestically, Taiwan would have to rely on the US for the weapons systems. But the US Navy allegedly bars top US defense firms from participating in Taiwan’s submarine program.
  • Given EU recognition of the “One China Principle,” Taiwan is subject to the EU arms embargo against China. Accordingly, there is next to zero chance for European countries to sell submarines or blueprints to Taiwan. It could be somewhat of a different matter with single components sold by individuals, but under EU law, these are also subject to exports control regulations for military and dual-use goods. Secret exports are believed to be unfeasible. However, while technical assistance and other forms of intangible transfers of technology are also subject to export controls, their export is naturally more difficult to detect. It must also be noted that the Netherlands delivered submarine parts for Taiwan’s Hailungs for 27 million euros in 2010.
  • Although Iran, North Korea and Colombian drug kingpins have all mastered submersibles, building a sophisticated attack submarine with the capabilities Taiwan needs, such as the German Type 206, which is one of the smallest attack submarines in the world with a displacement of about 500 tons, is a completely different matter. For CSBC the main difficulty will be to build on someone else’s design, and to obtain all the subsystems from the original vendors. Observers assess that as soon as CSBC starts altering the original design, or having to find replacement vendors for subsystems, the project will almost inevitably run into profound difficulties. It is assessed that if Taipei starts a submarine program today, it will probably take over a decade until a Taiwanese submarine fleet could possibly take to the sea.
  • Also the nature of CSCB’s shipbuilding experience augurs rather badly. Like many other Asian shipyards, it has mainly produced container and bulk carriers that are basically big steel boxes. Submarines are the opposite, as they are highly compartmented.

Additional obstacles to an involvement of nations other than the US:

  • India does not have an indigenous conventional submarine construction capability at the moment, and the Project 75A/76 program, which is the successor of the Scorpene project, envisions help from either Europe or Russia. If India were to assist Taiwan, it would face the risk that Beijing’s pressure on either Europe or Russia would place the 75A/76 program in jeopardy. Such an outcome would be significantly detrimental to India’s quest to counter rival China in the Indian Ocean.
  • The notion that Russia could step in seems beyond imagination given its business ties 52 and geo-strategic realignment with China.

Submarines in the Ma Administration’s perspective

Taiwan’s political scientists hold that the electorate does not directly reward administrations in Taipei for breakthroughs in arms procurements. If there’s any benefit for the government in electoral terms, it is because the public assesses that arms sales or military-related assistance by a foreign country prove that the Taiwanese government masters the balancing act between Washington, Beijing and other countries’ leaderships, which is a skill arguably immensely important for the wellbeing of the island’s future generations. Due to past scandals, such as the one over the purchase of French-made Lafayette frigates, it is a widely-held notion in Taiwan that any deal with foreign arms suppliers involves massive cheating and overpricing, so that President Ma could likely score domestically by resurrecting Project Diving Dragon as it would be an act symbolizing a renewed commitment to the local defense industry at the expense of foreign ones. However, suggesting that he could not expect capitalizing greatly on this, recent developments described by one MND adviser as “scandalous” involving perceived US pressure on Taiwan over the upgrade of Taiwanese F-16A/B fighter jets 4, were by and large ignored by local media.

As domestic politics can be ruled out as Ma’s major motivation for a renewed initiative on the submarines, the idea suggesting itself is that he sees the issue first and foremost as a political tool needed in cross-strait negotiations. When addressing the US in May 2011, he frankly labeled new F-16s and diesel-electric submarines the “right leverage” for negotiations with Beijing, and during his campaign for re-election in January 2012, his campaign manager and reputedly most trusted aide King Pu-tsung on a visit to Washington employed the term “bargaining chips” to describe the role US arms sold to Taiwan ought to play in cross-strait relations.

Such bargaining chips are obviously needed by the Ma Administration as Beijing’s embrace gets ever tighter. On a number of issues, Taipei has to wring concessions from Beijing and influence Chinese policymaking:

  • Ma needs Beijing’s recognition of tactical cross-strait agreements he suggests to exist. While he has been selling the “1992 Consensus” as the foundation established by the KMT and the CCP from which Taiwan can safely approach former arch enemy China , there is an essential discrepancy in the two sides’ interpretations of the Consensus. According to what Ma tells domestic and international audiences, both China and Taiwan belong to the same China, but either side may define what that China is; in China, however, the term “1992 Consensus” is synonymous with the term “One-China Principle”. In statements by Chinese officials and Chinese state media, nothing suggests that Taipei has its own right of interpretation. Beijing also fails to signal consent to Ma’s “mutual non-recognition of sovereignty and mutual non-denial of authority to govern” concept. According to the Ma Administration, while either side cannot possibly acknowledge each other’s sovereignty due to their respective constitutions, Beijing should at least not question Taipei’s right to govern. Beijing’s disregard of this concept has become a prominent issue in the past. For instance, in February, 2011, the Philippines, apparently acting under Chinese pressure, deported Taiwanese fraudsters to China instead of Taiwan, thereby effectively denying the existence of Taiwanese government’s authority. As yet another example, China has been openly recruiting Taiwanese civilians and officials to work for Chinese government institutions, which is illegal under Taiwanese law. The fundamental obstacle to Ma’s quest for economic cooperation agreements with important trading partners as well as a cross-strait investment protection agreement is Beijing’s non-recognition of his version of the “1992 Consensus” and “the mutual non-recognition of sovereignty and mutual non-denial of authority to govern” concept.
  • Beijing’s United Front drive has to be slowed down as it quickly erodes Taipei’s grip on power. With a number of policies, Beijing gives very clear signals to Taiwanese small and medium-sized enterprises as well as individuals that they can easily and safely vote with their feet should development on the island run counter to Beijing’s wishes. For example, the “Pingtan Comprehensive Experimental Zone” is being established in Fujian Province, with generous incentives aiming at attracting Taiwanese to move to China. Also that Beijing now directly approaches Taiwan’s farmers and invites Taiwanese would-be entrepreneurs to register small businesses in China under China’s “individual industrial and commercial households” regulations is to be seen in this context, as well as a staggering 600 billion yuan (US$95 billion) pledge in bank loans to Taiwanese investors wishing to operate from China Beijing made in June.

To influence Chinese policymaking, Ma has so far been carrying out a number of maneuvers:

  • He has declared Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) membership a goal for 2020. Although he will not be president by then, his drive to join the multilateral FTA that has been pushed for by the Obama Administration since last year to the obvious exclusion of China is a significant affront to Beijing. Taiwan’s TPP membership would give the island’s businesspeople choices other than China, making the Taiwanese economy spinning slower into China’s orbit, thereby delaying unification. Making apparent how serious a threat Ma’s TPP aspirations seems to be to Beijing, Chinese officials and academics have given broad hints that Beijing would work against Taiwan becoming TPP member.
  • In his re-inauguration speech in May, Ma reportedly shocked Beijing by not embedding any wording signaling that Taipei readies itself for unification. He stated that “China” is the ROC, and while he furthermore reiterated the need for a strong domestic defense industry, he emphasized that Taiwan will continue buying those arms from foreign countries it cannot produce itself.
  • In late June, Taipei barred Chinese academics who also hold government office from attending a Taipei conference. Visas were denied on grounds that the event was of political nature. This move of the Ma Administration was clearly meant as a reminder to Beijing that Taipei doesn’t wish political negotiations to begin any time soon.

A very potent bargaining chip was obtained by the Ma Administration rather passively and came as a major surprise: in late April, the Obama Administration, reversing position, said that it will give “serious consideration” to selling the F-16C/D fighter jets to Taiwan President Ma has been requesting numerous times. This unexpected gift to Taiwan further increased in value when on the eve of Ma’s re-inauguration, the US House of Representatives approved an amendment to the US 2013 National Defense Authorization Act ordering the sale of 66 F-16C/D jets to Taiwan. That some months earlier US think tanks – typically partially manned with former US officials – have strongly argued for additional submarines and even predicted the immediate launch of an indigenous program with foreign assistance has also given the Ma Administration more leverage, as related research papers were picked up on by the media, thereby creating the impression of a strong momentum.

Apart from obtaining much-needed bargaining chips for cross-strait talks, the notion that Project Diving Dragon is taking on shape and other submarine-related rumors bring about still other benefits to the Ma Administration: routine reminders to the US over its undelivered submarine package serve the purpose of giving Taipei some leverage on the more doable deals, such as the one for the upgrades of the F-16A/B fleet Taiwan has just sealed.

The Beijing take

In his re-inauguration speech, President Ma emphasized that since he took office in 2008, the US approved arms sales for US$18.3 billion, exceeding all previous such sales in terms of quality and amount. However, the Chinese leadership is undoubtedly aware that the deals, with the exception of one for rescue helicopters, were initiated not during Ma’s but during his predecessors’ presidencies. Beijing also certainly appreciates that under Ma, the defense budget in comparison to total government spending has steadily shrunk, and that after the White House in April signaled a significant change in attitude toward the F-16C/Ds, his administration seemingly backtracked from the sale it has long and urgently demanded.

But nonetheless, while there are reasons to doubt that Ma during his current and final term – which will to end in 2016 – will push hard for having additional submarines, Beijing can by no means ascertain Washington’s moves. The US presidential elections are pending, and with four months to go, both President Obama as well as presumptive Republican party nominee Mitt Romney are fielding anti-China rhetoric that is quite fierce at times. A senior US observer of Taiwanese military affairs assesses that a Romney win would probably lead to the release of the design phase of the two-phased submarine program. But Beijing certainly also takes into consideration that another term for the incumbent would not necessarily rule out submarines for Taiwan, as they could come in context of the “pivot to Asia” the Obama Administration has announced.

Turning to Chinese domestic politics:

When Chief of the PLA General Staff, General Chen Bingde, visited the US in May 2011, he indicated that in terms of US arms sales to Taiwan, Beijing would ignore some items, while others would cross its red line. PLA analysts have stated in private that submarines are among the weapon systems the PLA wants to see the least under Taipei command. If there were hard evidence that the Ma Administration and Washington work for a breakthrough on submarines for Taiwan, it would deal a blow to the major legacy of Chinese President Hu Jintao – his policy of “peaceful development” across the Taiwan Strait. The Hu Administration is criticized domestically for being too soft on Taipei and thereby allowing the Ma Administration to pursue a policy of “peaceful separation”, so that any sign showing Taipei stepping up its efforts to significantly strengthen the island’s defense and thereby to seek delaying unification indefinitely, would enable proponents in Beijing for drawing a deadline on cross-strait political negotiations on unification to gain an upper hand. Such a hawkish stance on Taiwan used to hold sway under Hu’s predecessor Jiang Zemin – the head of Hu’s rival faction.

President Hu and his faction are currently readying themselves for the once-in-a-decade leadership change, which is to be carried out at the CCP’s 18th congress later this year. The recent dismissal of senior party official Bo Xilai, among other developments, strongly suggests that things go far from smoothly for them. If Hu’s legacy would take a significant dent, it would not only damage him but also the next Chinese leadership as his legacy is the foundation for the power Hu’s successor Vice-President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, who is expected to succeed Premier Wen Jiabao, must govern China with in the coming decade.

And there is a further certain factor which compels Chinese policymakers in charge of cross-strait relations to do their utmost to prevent the Ma Administration from obtaining submarines:

No matter whether a breakthrough on Taiwanese arms acquisitions occurs before, during or after the CCP’s 18th congress, or whether purchase of F-16C/Ds, design studies for submarines, submarine armament, or indeed any other military-related high-profile item is obtained by Taiwan, it will function as a potential career wrecker to them.

As its tool of choice to prevent the Ma Administration from obtaining submarines, Beijing, next to encouraging senior retired US military officers and foreign businesses to advocate against US assistance, would find the manipulation of Taiwanese public opinion most promising.

In September 2011, shortly before Washington was due to announce a decision on F-16s, China’s state-run Global Times in an editorial argued for the unprecedented punishment of Taiwan should it seek to obtain foreign weapons. Beijing has never directed arms acquisition-relegated threats or steps against Taiwan in the past , and it likely assesses that by punishing the Ma Administration with sanctions, let alone punitive military action, it would inevitably strengthen the KMT’s main domestic opponent, the anti-unification DPP. However, as the United Front strategy beginning to bear fruit, Beijing by now has potent options at hand to thwart submarine plans without strengthening the DPP:

  • Taiwanese tycoons could speak out against a deal that would “waste billions” and cost the Taiwanese economy dearly by damaging cross-strait relations. Shortly before Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections in January, a number of them publicly endorsed the 1992 Consensus, and the surprisingly high vote count of Ma was partially attributed to the tycoons’ initiatives. It is also noteworthy that in February, Chang Kuo-wei, president of EVA Airways, demanded that flights across the “median” line between Taiwan and China be allowed, thereby effectively calling onto the Ma Administration to make changes to the island’s air defense. Chang’s demand was later echoed by Albert Wu, chairman of the Council for Industrial and Commercial Development, an industry association whose members’ enterprises’ aggregate output constitutes close to 50 percent of Taiwan’s GDP, according to its own web site.
  • Taiwan’s pro-Beijing media could launch a campaign simultaneously. Cher Wang, one of the tycoons who endorsed the 1992 Consensus, has bought Hong Kong’s dominant broadcaster, Television Broadcasts, a move that has given her access to Taiwan’s popular cable network TVBS, which operates three cable channels; Tsai Eng-meng, who has stated in an interview with The Washington Post that the events in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989 did not constitute a “massacre”, owns the China Times group, which includes two major newspapers, a weekly magazine and two television stations. What shape a media drive against Taiwanese submarines would take on has been shown in the past: political demands by Beijing directed at Taipei in order to pressure the latter to ease restrictions on cross-strait exchanges were accompanied by salvoes of media reports that sympathized with the “victims” of these restrictions.
  • Also other United Front beneficiaries, such as farmers’ unions and the tourism industry, could be mobilized.

If the main argument of all these parties would be the perceived waste of astronomic sums of public funds for submarines at the expense of social welfare and national development, the DPP would fail to gain political capital. In particular since the run-up to the last elections, it has very eagerly presented itself as a social movement that protects the low-income earners, so that it could hardly credibly argue for the spending of more than US$10 billion on eight submarines.

Another weak point Beijing will likely seek to exploit is the rapid and ongoing process of decentralization of political power in Taipei. Ma’s approval ratings are down to 15 percent, and KMT legislators have been rebelling openly against the administration lately, making it more promising for Beijing to approach and influence them one by one.

Factors shaping views in Washington

Unlike it is the case with new fighter jets, Washington has already agreed to the sale of submarines to Taiwan. However, a decision to release the design phase, or authorize the US defense industry to participate in Project Diving Dragon, or promote a third country scheme will be surrounded by polarized discussions. Opponents will argue that:

  • US-Sino relations would sour to the general detriment of US policy initiatives and business;
  • Beijing could consider releasing sensitive nuclear or missile-related technologies to Iran or other countries of concern, or they could withhold support for non- proliferation-related actions within the United Nations or other international organizations;
  • Beijing would suspend PLA military exchanges with the DoD;
  • Beijing could impose sanctions against participating US companies;
  • Beijing may attempt, or threaten to, liquidate US Treasury holdings;
  • the program would involve technology transfers to Taiwan, European countries or both, with sensitive items possibly ending up in the PLA’s own submarines;
  • Taiwan’s limited defense budget should be better spent on other weapon systems;
  • a shaky ally should not be given the chance to acquire such potent weapon system. Taiwan, which imports over 98 percent of its primary energy sources, could sooner or later find Beijing’s offers for joint exploration of the South China Sea irresistible; some influential members of the Taiwanese military establishment, as well as lawmakers, have obviously begun seeing Vietnam, and not China, as the principle adversary in contested waters;
  • the possession of a deterrent submarine fleet and – perhaps even more so – US and other countries’ efforts to help Taiwan acquiring it would install a sense of safety onto the Taiwanese population, which could strengthen pro-independence candidates in future elections, in turn complicating US-Sino relations. It is not a secret that former President Chen Shui-bian was widely regarded as a troublemaker by US officials due to his pro-independence course.

But also the rhetoric to be fielded by proponents is foreseeable. They would say that:

  • a relative erosion of Taiwan’s military capabilities against China’s would make it more tempting for Chinese military planners to opt for an attack on the island. This in turn would put US forces at risk;
  • a submarine deal would be needed to comply with the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which stipulates US’ commitments to help defend Taiwan by providing arms and by maintaining US capacity in the region to resist any resort to force;
  • it would help a free and democratic ally defend itself against an authoritarian aggressor;
  • it would enable Taipei as the underdog to engage with Beijing as the giant from a position of strength;
  • Taiwan’s effort to obtain the vessels belies the notion that it seeks to “free-ride” on the US security guarantee;
  • it would send signals to US allies feeling threatened by China that the day they seek crucial weapons, Washington will give the nod;
  • already the news on an imminent launch of a submarine program would give Washington an ace up its sleeve for US-Sino negotiations. The offer to abandon the project could for example be used as a trade-off to counter alleged Chinese involvement in violations of the North Korean arms embargo.

While all these pros and cons have in common that they arguably aren’t new and could, in essence, apply to most, if not all, arms sales to Taiwan, a recent display of maneuvering on the part of the Ma Administration over its long-stalled request for F-16C/D jet fighters is likely to give opponents of a submarine initiative fresh argumentative ammunition.

An account of signals that can easily be misunderstood:

Since 2006, Taiwan has been requesting for new F-16C/D fighters. After Ma took office in 2008, he has continued pressing for the deal and mentioned it often in interviews and speeches. Taipei has all along said that the F-16C/Ds were meant to replace its obsolete F-5s, and when it in 2009 formally requested an upgrade to its F-16A/B fighters bought back in 1992, it emphasized this program would be necessary in parallel to, and not a substitute for, new F-16C/D fighters.

From April 2011 to August that year, Ma’s push got very strong backing from close to 50 US senators, 181 members of the US House of Representatives and one governor – all of whom have written or signed letters to President Obama, urging him to notify US Congress of the sale of 66 F-16C/D aircraft. When in September 2011, the US government agreed to the sale of an F-16 A/B fighter jet retrofit package but did not include the F-16 C/Ds, Ma expressed gratitude for the upgrade, but – despite long-standing concerns over whether Taiwan could afford funding both programs – reiterated his steadfast commitment for F-16 C/Ds.

His not so obvious achievement: by painting the F-16A/B upgrade as second choice and not as what he had actually wanted, he secured it without giving Beijing reason to react furiously and in turn without upsetting US-Sino relations.

In late April, the Obama Administration then signaled an unexpected reverse of position: in a letter to Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, it said that it will give “serious consideration” to selling F-16C/D fighter jets to Taiwan. The White House letter is the last piece of official correspondence out of the administration on the prospective sale, and there have been no signs since that the Obama Administration backtracked. Yet, while the timing at long last seemed to have been opportune for Ma to formally request the F-16C/Ds, he chose to not take advantage of the rare but significant momentum that has obviously built up. Instead, more than a week after the White House letter was publicized, the local media ran stories (which were not since refuted by the Ma Administration) that senior Taiwanese military officers considered abandoning the bid to procure the aircraft, citing rising costs. Deputy Minister of National Defense Andrew Yang surprised the public with a new argument that any new fighters Taiwan would buy must be more capable than the upgraded F-16A/Bs (which retrofit will include Active Electronically Scanned Array radar, a feature F-16C/Ds don’t have), thereby brushing under the carpet issues surrounding the F-16A/Bs’ two-decade-old airframes and engines, the latter of which having less power than China’s modern fighters’ and the F-16C/Ds’.

Then, the Ma Administration seemed to have conducted an awkward face-saving maneuver by – as one Taipei-based journalist aptly put it– asking for the “impossible”: Military officials reportedly said that Taipei can afford the upgrade program but not the F-16C/Ds, and that the Ma Administration wants to save its defense dollars for the F-35B, a problem-plagued US fifth-generation aircraft under development meant to become the main fighter of the US, Japan and Australia. The alleged argumentation: in the opening days of cross-strait conflict, PLA missiles would destroy the runways the F-16s would rely on, which wouldn’t matter to the F-35Bs as they feature vertical takeoff/landing capabilities.

Apparently, the Ma Administration repeats the tactic it has secured the F-16A/B upgrade with: by pretending the F-16C/Ds are only second choice while the F-35Bs are the first one, Taipei makes a release of the F-16C/Ds more likely. For, this would enable the leadership in Beijing to convince its domestic audience that its clout makes Taiwan obtain only low-grade ware. This in turn prevents Beijing from carrying out drastic punitive action against the US.

Yet, if this indeed is Taipei’s calculus, it is very capable of being misunderstood. As observers agree that there is next to zero chance that Taipei indeed reckons Washington would sell to Taiwan the F-35B, for fears that the advanced technology would be transferred to China, Ma’s move strongly suggests that there is a real risk that those who assist the Ma Administration obtaining submarines profoundly damage their relations with China, only to see that Taipei later cancels the deal.


Although future scenarios in which the PLA attacks Taiwan or imposes a blockade against the island seem very remote, it cannot be taken for granted that China’s development will stay on the current trajectory. It is obvious that not all elements in Beijing agree with Chinese President Hu Jintao’s patient Taiwan approach, and it is still indistinct how the balance of power will be in Chinese domestic politics after the CCP’s 18th Congress later this year.

Neither are developments predictable on this side of the Taiwan Strait. In Taipei, newly re-inaugurated President Ma Ying-jeou finds himself confronted with the effects of Beijing’s United Front strategy that erodes his and future administration’s power. Ma seems reacting by seeking to put the brakes on the rapid cross-strait rapprochement that has defined his first term, and in this context, it is imaginable that relations between Taipei and Beijing will turn testy in the midterm.

If Beijing were to lose patience over Taipei’s snail pace toward political talks on unification, there is little doubt that a credible fleet of diesel-electric submarines under Taipei command would help deter Chinese policymakers to opt for a military solution. Already a small number of boats could inflict heavy damage on the PLA Navy, as they are inherently hard to detect. The existence of a capable Taiwanese submarines fleet would also make it easier for a US President to decide sending supply ships to Taiwan if China were to opt for a blockade.

What stands between today – when Taiwan only has two combat-capable submarines – and the future – when Taipei will command a truly deterrent fleet – are, for a start, are concrete technical obstacles. To overcome these, an immense amount of political will on the part of the Taiwanese government is needed. But there are ample indicators that Ma, whose current and final term is scheduled to end in 2016, will not be the Taiwanese leader, who will make it into the history books as the “father of a Taiwanese submarine force.”

An apparent peak in recent media reports suggesting that momentum exist in Taiwan’s submarine plans does little to alter this impression.

Ma stresses that Taiwan needs the submarines, but does not say that they are a weapon system meant to deter China from attacking the island – he instead suggests that their sole purpose is to function as “leverage” for cross-strait negotiations. To help him obtain this “leverage”, Taiwan supporters in Washington and almost certainly also in European capitals would have to spend an immense amount of political capital. However, the Ma Administration’s recent handling of developments surrounding Taiwan’s long-stalled quest for new F-16C/D fighter jets risks suggesting that it wouldn’t be worth it for them. Simply put it, those who have been contemplating to assist the Ma Administration obtaining submarines might now fear that they would profoundly damage their relations with China, only to see that Taipei later cancels the deal.

To make sure that the political decisions of future Taiwanese generations can be guarded by a deterrent submarine force, the current administration in Taipei should be extremely careful with the signals it sends. Aimed at Beijing, it has to show more determination to slow down the United Front drive, which will be a difficult task, given that the Ma Administration for too long did little in this regard. As any anti-United Front policy will come to the expense of the Taiwanese economy, an outreach to the DPP is crucial because otherwise, the opposition party would feel tempted to exploit the economic damage for its own political gain.

Aimed at Taiwan’s principal security partner – the US, the Ma Administration should first and foremost counter the notion that the island takes a “free ride” on the US security guarantee for granted. To make a decision easier for Washington to release the design phase of a submarine program, or to make Washington authorize US participation in a Taiwanese domestic program and to convince European countries to assist, Taipei should very discretely make sure that its maneuvers surrounding the F-16C/Ds are not misunderstood by Taiwan’s backers in the US and elsewhere.

Because if the Ma Administration is seen as indifferently letting slip through its hands Taiwan’s seemingly only opportunity to maintain an air force that is worth mentioning, the “leverage” the island gains through the possibility of future US arms sales or the announcement of a domestic submarine program will lose its value for what Ma says Taiwan needs potent weapons mainly for – the cross-strait negotiation table.


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