China Runs Silent, Runs Rings Around Taiwan

Written by Jens Kastner and Wang Jyh-Perng
With Chinese naval nuclear-powered submarines beginning to slip unchallenged through American and Japanese surveillance cordons, China appears well on its way to gaining absolute control over everything that lies within a 500 nautical miles radius of its coasts, military analysts say. A major part of the reason for that, they say, is that Taiwan’s surveillance capability is woefully inadequate. 

That means not only will US Navy carrier battle groups have a hard time getting anywhere near China unless China allows it, but the waters around Taiwan could well already have become the Chinese navy’s safe entry and exit points into the Pacific Ocean.

In an effort to shore up its defenses, Taiwan has bought 12 P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft at a cost to its taxpayers of US$1.3 billion. The P-3Cs were part of an arms package authorized by former US President George W. Bush in 2001. Although Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense says its anti-submarine capability is sufficient, critics say its older plans, 27 Grumman S-2T Trackers transferred to Taiwan in 1999, are obsolete and that only three of the planes are still operational.

Whether the P-3C Orions will help is problematical, critics say. Although Japan has deployed more than 100 of the advanced anti-submarine aircraft, it is still having apparent difficulties deterring People’s Liberation Army Navy subs from breaking through. Critics including from the US online publication Defense News say the purchase of the P-3Cs is purely symbolic, and failures in detecting submarines of unknown origin are notoriously covered up.

On December 31, Sankei Shimbun, one of Japan’s five national newspapers, revealed that in February 2009, a Chinese nuclear sub crossed the so-called First Island Chain in waters near Taiwan. The term “First Island Chain” describes a maritime line which runs roughly between Korea and Japan’s western coasts, through the Taiwan Strait along the northern half of the Philippines, and ending at the Indonesian island of Sumatra. To the US and its allies, any action by the Chinese navy beyond the First Island Chain symbolizes that Beijing is expanding its geographic limits or boundaries in terms of its military’s operations.

The 2009 incident resembles one in November 2004, when a P-3Cs of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces discovered a Han-class nuclear-powered submarine sneaking southwest of Ishigaki, an island belonging to the Okinawa Prefecture. That prompted the then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to bring into force a marine guard action directive to follow the sub. Together with the US, the Japanese subsequently monitored the Chinese sub making a cruise around Guam, a US key military hub, after which it sailed back to its mother port Jianggezhuang, a Chinese naval base 24 km east of Qingdao in the Yellow Sea. But while the 2004 incident led to considerable media coverage, the 2009 break through the First Island Chain was not detected by the Taiwanese.

Although the US has responded to the rapid development of the Chinese submarine fleet by deploying the ocean surveillance ships USNS Victorious and USNS Impeccable, which monitor the seas with low-frequency sonar arrays and The Japanese self-defense forces have also strengthened surveillance with their 100 P-3Cs, both the 2004 and 2009 incidents make it obvious that US and Japan have been gradually losing the ability to fully monitor Chinese subs’ movements.

Moreover, if the Chinese in February 2009 managed to sail nuclear-powered submarines through Taiwanese waters to make their way between Miyako and Yonaguni, two Japanese islands located in close proximity to Taiwan’s east coast, the Chinese have indeed succeeded in identify ing Taiwan as the weak link in the First Island Chain. But despite the recent finalization of Taiwan’s P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft deal, the island doesn’t seem able to close the gap.

The Ministry of National Defense’s attempt to paint Taiwan’s anti-submarine capabilities as rosy belly-flopped when an obviously upset retired Vice Admiral, Lan Ning-li, published an article on how Taiwan’s anti-submarine aircraft were — or are about to become– useless, including the P-3C anti-submarine aircraft that cost taxpayers US$1.3 billion.

Although no one questions the actual capabilities of the P-3Cs, it’s unlikely that they would be of use in case Taiwan were to be drawn into a war. This is because the maritime patrol airfields would almost immediately be rendered useless by Chinese missile strikes. Moreover, the P-3Cs could only operate if Taiwan enjoys superiority over its airspace, a circumstance that likely wouldn’t last very long if the PLA were to attack. Therefore, what Taiwan accordingly needs isn’t a P-3C fleet but anti-submarine helicopters, which in the event of war stick with the fleet, protected by the Navy’s own air defense.

The issues of worn out weapons and Chinese subs passing by unchallenged lie hidden in the culture and system of Taiwan’s military. Taiwan doesn’t allow private think tanks to conduct research and assessments into national defense affairs, and there are no investigations carried out by independent groups on irregular events, accidents or corruption cases.

Detailed information is kept from the public, even on issues that caused considerable media uproar, such as one in 2009 when the captain of the submarine Hai Lung was washed overboard and drowned, or when another sub lost a torpedo which was never to be found despite the offer of a NT$30,000 (US$930) reward to any fisherman who might turn it up.

The possibility to have all but everything shrouded in mystery makes it easy for decision-makers to ditch responsibility in case things go wrong, and the general computerization of the chain of command’s processes makes cover-ups even easier.

In the past, directives as well as memorandums were still handwritten and gradually made their way up the chain of command. Those with objections could write by hand in the margins. If there were irregularities, it was possible to trace where the mistake had originated. Today by contrast, directives on sensitive decisions and matters are usually given orally so as not to create a trail of written documents.

Staff officers then have to follow these oral directives without knowing the reasons and genuineness of the directives. If superiors sense that a scandal is about to break out, they have the option of refusing to admit having given any instructions, remaining silent or purposely forgetting something. Lower-ranking officers receive all the blame and no one up the hierarchy ladder must resign if, for instance, the decrepit state of weapon systems was covered up, or if the Japanese again detected something that had embarrassingly escaped Taiwanese surveillance.

It was not only the Sankei Shimbun and Defense News stories which exposed lack of anti-sub preparedness. Last year on Jan. 27, an unidentified submarine was detected 44.4 km off a Kaohsiung military port. Again it wasn’t the Taiwanese but the Japanese who detected it.

Taiwanese navy circles believe with Taiwanese waters a crucial part of the First Island Chain, Washington carries out annual assessments on the navy’s anti-submarine capacity. Reportedly, originally the US evaluated Taiwan’s strength as equal to that of Israel, a nation armed to the teeth. That perception, however, is said to have profoundly changed. By now, Taiwan’s ability to detect and fight enemy subs is allegedly somewhere similar to that of Panama, a country that has abolished its standing army. This is spite of the US$10 billion annually that Taiwan spends on its military.

Wendell Minnick, the Asia Bureau Chief of Defense News, in an interview with Asia Sentinel makes clear the rationale behind the P-3C procurement. “All arms sales to Taiwan are symbolic. They are nothing more than a US reassurance that it will continue to support Taiwan’s defense needs,” he says.

Jens Kastner is a freelance writer based in Taiwan and Wang Jyh-Perng a reserve captain of the Taiwan Navy

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